Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Wednesday, 11 November 2020
Joint Oireachtas Committee on European Union Affairs
Conference on the Future of Europe: Discussion
As a committee we are looking forward to this discussion on the Conference on the Future of Europe. I welcome Professor Federico Fabbrini and Dr. Catherine Day, as well as Professor Gavin Barrett, who will join us shortly. Today's meeting is the start of our engagement on this very important topic.
Witnesses are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. I wish to advise witnesses giving evidence from a location outside of the parliamentary precincts to note that the constitutional protections afforded to witnesses attending to give evidence before committees may not extend to them. No clear guidance can be given on the extent to which evidence given is covered by absolute privilege of a statutory nature. Persons giving evidence from another jurisdiction should also be mindful of their domestic statutory regime. If they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter, they must respect that direction.
Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the House or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.
I call on Professor Fabbrini to make his opening statement.
Professor Federico Fabbrini:
I thank the committee for inviting me. It is a pleasure to be able to address the committee, and I am delighted to be sharing the platform with Dr. Day and Professor Barrett to provide an insight into the future of Europe, an important topic on which I have been working since I was awarded the Charlemagne Prize for research in the city of Aachen in November last year. My remarks will be based on "Possible Avenues for Further Political Integration in Europe", a report I was asked to write by the European Parliament constitutional affairs committee and which was published in June. I commend it to the House for consideration.
I will speak around three points: first, that Covid-19 increases the urge for reforming the EU, second, that the Conference on the Future of Europe constitutes a major opportunity for reforming the EU and third, the challenges ahead and the importance of keeping open all avenues to further political integration in the EU.
The pandemic has increased the need for EU reform in two ways. Initially, we witnessed the EU's weaknesses. In the early phases of Covid-19 the EU and its member states were weak and disorganised in putting together a response to the health crisis.
That pointed out some of the shortcomings of the current EU system of governance. Subsequently the EU managed to take important steps, particularly following the Commission proposal for a recovery plan. However, these steps also increased the need for reform because the recovery plan creates an urge for increasing the effectiveness of the EU but also the legitimacy of the EU if we are to go in the direction of substantially increasing the powers of EU institutions in taxing and spending. In this context, the Conference on the Future of Europe represents a once-in-a-generation opportunity to push the project of European integration forward and to renew the EU.
As the committee will be well aware, the idea of establishing a conference on the future of Europe goes back to a proposal by the French President, Emmanuel Macron, in March 2019. Since then, all EU institutions have supported the initiative. The Parliament and the Commission in particular have strongly endorsed the plan for the conference and the Council for the European Union has also supported the initiative. We are waiting for the three institutions to come together and outline their visions for the conference mandate in a joint declaration but it is already possible to emphasise that the conference represents an out-of-the-box initiative with lots of potential. It is akin to several illustrious precedents, namely the Convention on the Future of Europe exactly 20 years ago, as well as further back in the history of the EU, to the Conference of Messina, for example. Both of those events were crucial in relaunching integration at moments of crisis and serve as possible templates for the conference itself.
Nevertheless, we must be mindful of the obstacles ahead. If the conference wants to be ambitious and to achieve its objectives, it will face challenges. A phrase which is often taboo in conversations on Europe is "treaty change". If the conference wants to really tackle the institutional and substantive shortcomings of the current EU system of governance it will have to deal with treaty change, yet everyone here will be well aware of the difficulties that avenue would raise because of the problem of unanimity. Amendments to the treaties of the European Union require unanimous consent by the Governments of member states and then they have to be ratified unanimously by all member countries. Yet, this problem has also been recently addressed, particularly in the context of the euro crisis, by an increasing tendency of member states to use treaties outside the framework of the EU to push integration further. This practice of separate intergovernmental agreements, which has emerged in the context of the EMU, represents a potential pathway forward. I am thinking of agreements such as the European fiscal compact, the European Stability Mechanism and the intergovernmental agreement on the single resolution, which have used for the first time in the history of European integration a rule that the treaties themselves would enter into force not after unanimous approval by the signatory states but on the basis of super-qualified majority ratification rules. That potentially also opens up a pathway for the Conference on the Future of Europe. That is what I was specifically asked by the European Parliament to consider in my report. I suggested that the conference could consider drafting a new treaty, which I call a political compact, with new rules on its entry into force which would overcome the problem of unanimity.
As I am speaking to the Oireachtas, let me make one point very clear. Ireland has had a complicated tradition of ratifying new treaties in the past but today, clearly, I do not think Ireland will be the country that could face problems. The support for the EU following Brexit has never been so high in the nation, so the question or the challenge of unanimity votes in the ratification of new treaty amendments, in my view, mostly comes from other member states of the EU, particularly countries which, as the committee knows, are backsliding in respect of the rule of law and democracy. That poses a major threat to the future of Europe because the EU could really be blocked by nations who are sliding towards illiberalism, and I do not think we can afford that.
The idea of a political compact as a possible outcome of the conference on the future of Europe is essentially a way to renew the Union after Brexit and Covid-19. It is important, as we discuss the underlying importance of renewing and relaunching integration, that we also think of what might be possible avenues to achieve that in the long term.
I will stop my remarks there. I very much look forward to the conversation with committee members.
Dr. Catherine Day:
I thank the Chairman. I am grateful for the opportunity to speak to the committee today. It is very important that we find a way to discuss the future of the EU with our citizens and especially to listen to how they would like to see the EU develop in the coming years. Brexit has shown us all how much we have to gain from our membership of the EU but it has also revealed how little people understand about how it works in practice. Of course, the EU will need to change and adapt as it tackles future challenges and it is clear it will only be able to do so effectively if it carries the majority of citizens with it. It is clear to everybody that Brexit has shown us the perils of citizen detachment and disillusion.
Having said that, it will not be easy to arrange an EU-wide series of debates and even harder to find the common threads between the different national and regional debates. As Professor Fabrini said, this will have to be done in a time of pandemic, which has the effect of hampering face-to-face meetings. However, the fact that most people are now used to working and communicating online may offer a way to reach more people if we can get the model right. I am currently chairing the Citizens’ Assembly on gender equality, and we have moved it online to be able to continue our work. I would be happy to share some of that experience this morning, if that might be useful.
I have provided a written statement and I would like to summarise some of the points in it, and in particular to respond to some of the questions indicated for discussion today. First, we have already had some very active citizens dialogues in Ireland. They provided rich feedback, which is still valid today, so we should build on them. As many citizens as possible should be encouraged to participate in this coming debate. One of the advantages of doing the consultation online is that the physical limits on meeting spaces and travelling to meetings no longer apply. Many webinars now host well over 1,000 attendees in different locations.
Turning to what the conference should focus on, in my view, we need to reverse the previous ways of doing this. Previously, decisions were prepared in long meetings of official representatives and the outcome was then put to the people, who were asked to endorse it. This time, the EU should try hard to first reach out to its citizens and to listen to them. Ideally, the output of the conference would be clear guidance to decision makers on what the citizens of the EU see as priorities for future EU action, where they do not want to see the EU involved and an indication of where citizens are open to change or willing to compromise on the status quoto get the EU to where they want it to be.
To try to deliver useful results, the conference needs both a pan-EU dimension and a way of reflecting national differences. For the pan-EU part, a list of topics for discussion across all member states could be agreed at EU level, and we know France and Germany have suggested their list. Then each country could add additional points to reflect its own particular take on the EU.
The exact format of the debate should be left to each member state to decide. As I have just mentioned, here in Ireland, we have been developing citizens’ assemblies as a way of testing the views of our citizens, but in other countries they do things differently. To give a valid reflection across Europe, it will be important to allow room for national customs and practices.
I feel very strongly that the debate should be guided by substance and that processes and procedures should take a back seat. Treaty change is an instrument to enable the EU to act in certain areas, but as I have said, I think we first need to listen to citizens about what more - or less - integration they want to see in the future. Then we need to check and see whether the things they say they want can actually be accommodated within the existing treaties, and if not, only then should treaty change be considered. I say this for two reasons, first, because I think any focus on treaty change from the start would give a bureaucratic impression of the purpose of the Conference on the Future of Europe and would inevitably be seen as yet another project of the Brussels elites. Moreover, I think it would be very difficult to get treaty change ratified in all 27 member states in any realistic timeframe. This is because we have changes of government very regularly across the EU and because there is a tendency to see referendums as judgments on the government of the day rather than on the issues that underpin them.
National parliaments could play their role through participating in national and regional discussions and providing information on EU topics, because they are best placed to be able to put EU issues into the national context. Once the national debate has concluded, national parliaments could again help to explain the views of their fellow citizens to other parliaments, other member states and the EU institutions.
In my view, citizens’ recommendations could be decided by simple majority voting during the national debates. Once the recommendations have been gathered, they could be presented in a report to the steering group of the conference. Governments and national parliaments should have the opportunity in parallel to indicate which of their citizens' recommendations they support and to explain if there are recommendations they do not support. In the end, the outcome of the process will be decided by the Council and European Parliament, and in some cases through referendum in different member states, but the citizens’ influence should have a strong bearing on the future direction of policy.
I hope that the planned conference will help to spark a new debate about the EU and bring more citizen buy-in and support for future developments. If, in the end, the outcome is a set of recommendations that require treaty change, then we know we will have a referendum here. That in itself should be a strong motive for Ireland to invest in the process and to ensure that our population will be ready to engage fully in whatever next steps the EU will decide to take.
Professor Gavin Barrett:
I thank the Chairman and committee for the invitation to attend. I thought I would go through a few basic ideas and some of the questions and follow up on what my fellow speakers have said.
As we know, the idea of a Conference on the Future of Europe has been a long time in the brewing. It was mapped out as a possible path by then Commission President Juncker in March 2017 in his White Paper on the future of Europe and, of course, a lot of water has passed under the bridge since that time, with Brexit, the rule of law crisis in eastern Europe and the coronavirus crisis. The present phase was kicked off in July 2019 by Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in her inaugural address in which, and this may be interesting for the committee to recall, she entrusted responsibility to particular Commissioners - Vice President Suica, Vice President Sefcovic and Vice President Jourová. The fact there are high-ranking Commissioners involved in this might give ideas for future guests to be invited in on this particular topic.
The basic idea of this conference is that it would be an opportunity for a thorough reflection on the direction of the European Union and its institutional set-up. This body would look at the medium to long-term future of the EU and what reforms should be made to its policies and institutions. In other words, it would be an opportunity to engage in a more structured debate with the aim of improving the functioning of the European Union not only in terms of institutional dynamics but also its policies. Things really got going at the end of last year. In October 2019 we had the European Parliament's Conference of Presidents, which made proposals to the Parliament's Committee on Constitutional Affairs. The various institutions have come forward with their proposals.
As regards where the debate has gotten to, it had been expected that a joint declaration would kick off the event at this stage but we have experienced a lot of delay. One of the reasons for that is the Covid pandemic. Apart from Covid, there is also the difficulty of the failure to agree on who should share the conference. It is also fair to mention that there is a degree of scepticism in some member states about this process. It has been described as involving varying degrees of enthusiasm so there is that to consider as well.
I will turn very quickly to the questions, although Dr. Day has already dealt with some of them. For example, there is the issue of whether the Conference on the Future of Europe should build on the work of the previous citizens' dialogue on the future of Europe. The Council has explicitly suggested that this be the case and yet there is some ambivalence about the outcome of that dialogue and some feel that it has not led to anything in particular. There have been various attempts to involve the citizenry in debate about European matters and they have all had their limits. There is also a feeling that an ad hocbody like this might not be enough in and of itself in to involve the citizenry and that we might need a more permanent mechanism at some stage. The idea of involving the citizenry is to get a kind of bottom-up dialogue and yet this is coming from above and it is the institutions that are initiating this debate. We will have to see how well it works. It is not absolutely clear that it will work but we will see and we will remain optimistic. The problem of the democratic deficit at European level springs eternal. It is certainly a very interesting idea. I am particularly interested also in the idea of six Citizens' Assemblies or agoras which would deliberate throughout the conference process. It is an interesting and novel idea. Dr. Day made reference to the fact that she is chairing a Citizens' Assembly herself and a lot of attention will be paid to the Irish experience in that regard, as it is seen as having been very successful.
One of the questions was about what format the conference should take and how it should be organised. The best way of thinking about this is to think of three broad issues. We need to think of its mandate and whether it should it be broad or narrow, focus more on policies or on institutional proposals and competence issues, or, indeed, on both of those. Without a mandate for clear proposals it will just replicate existing and rather inconclusive forms of citizen engagement, rather like the citizens' dialogues. It might run the danger of just being reduced to a communications exercise. We need to bear in mind that it needs a clear mandate. It also requires wide participation and deep deliberation. That is very important. One good proposal is that its composition should look like the Convention on the Future of Europe and thus involve representatives of national parliaments in its deliberations. That would be important and would obviously be of relevance to this committee. Its follow-up should be important as well. It would be useful if not just the Commission but the institutions generally committed to delivering on legislative proposals that emerge from this conference and also to initiating debate on changing the treaties, based on all the proposals that come out of this conference.
The role of national parliaments was referred to by Dr. Day as well. It is crucial that national parliaments play a role in this regard.
The involvement of national parliaments creates transparency, attracts attention and creates a framework in which MEPs can transmit the outcome of deliberations and results to national capitals, transferring the debate from European to international level. It allows national perspectives to be tapped into and it is one means whereby a large variety of different views and options can be taken into account.
Deliberative democracy and citizens' dialogue are very important but there is a continuing role for national parliaments. They can play a big role in the organisation of the conference and participating in the conference. Here at home, one useful idea I have implicitly referred to would be to invite the Commissioners, Dubravka Šuica, Vra Jourová and Maroš Šefovi. It would be useful to bring them in and, in that way, bring this debate to national level. Various types of parliamentary involvement can take place. One of the most important ones is for the national parliament to become a debating arena on the major issues and that would be an important role. To a certain extent, the Oireachtas can follow its own lead in regard to Brexit, in which the Seanad invited in various speakers on various issues. This committee could perform that role.
Another question was how events held as part of the conference can reach the broadest range of citizens. That is probably the biggest challenge for the citizens' dialogue. The use of technology is important and keeping everything online and viewable is important. They have a multilingual online platform. Covid imposes severe difficulties in terms of participation. I suggest delaying it until the vaccine could take effect but that is not realistic at this stage. We need to get moving on this.
As to whether treaty change should form part of the conclusions, if the committee discusses institutional issues, it is pretty much inevitable that we will get treaty change coming on the agenda. Certain member states, including Ireland, have been reportedly unenthusiastic about the prospect of treaty change because that involves a referendum here, with all the risks that entails, particularly in this age of bots and all kind of shenanigans going on in respect of Internet interference in elections and referendums. If institutional issues are discussed and wished to be acted upon by the member states, then we are probably looking at referendums in due course. We need to be careful on this. It is not like the Convention on the Future of Europe. It is not intended to lead directly to treaty change. It is intended to culminate in a report to the European Council and then it has to be decided where things will go from there. It will not directly lead to treaty change and yet I think it will be the process that will initiate that.
There are many issues and the ultimate outcome of the conference depends on the focus of the issues. The General Affairs Council has had its own ideas on what issues should be addressed. Other issues have pushed themselves onto the agenda by the force of events such as health, fiscal policy and, to a certain extent, the spitzenkandidaten system for choosing the Commission president. Individual state have their own priorities. There will be a broad division between policy issues and institutional reform. The impact of the conference will depend on the balance that is reached by those within the conference.
I have probably said enough. I have gone over a number of issues and I know to some extent overlapping what has been said but we will look forward to the discussion.
I thank our three speakers. It has been quite illuminating. Professor Fabrini highlighted complacency issues as one of the shortcomings of the current EU Government. The convention was suggested as far back as 2016 as a response to Brexit and the soul-searching that Brexit provoked.
Ms Day touched on it slightly in her presentation. We are in 2020 and it will soon be 2021. Covid happened in 2020. Is there not complacency around the establishment of the convention? Does it not sum up where we are that it has taken five years to get what was seen as an emergency response to the disconnect that the Brexit debate suggested? In the witnesses' view, what is the likely timeline for getting this on the road? Will it be years or, perhaps, the 10th anniversary of the Brexit vote before we get to some sort of conclusion of the process?
We are all into the digital side of things. I welcome that. We have all transformed but there is huge digital exclusion. Those who do not engage in online meetings or online classes in education are the people who are excluded from the European Commission, the European Parliament and the EU generally and do not see them as delivering for them or as being relevant in their lives. In going digital, how do we ensure that we do not further exclude people?
Professor Fabrini pointed to the EU Council and said it has become mightier in the past number of years but he did not say much about the parliament. Given that these are the two institutions that represent elected leaders and directly elected members, what role will they play in the process?
My final question is for Ms Day. It is a little outside of this discussion so I would appreciate some leeway from the Chairman. Ms Day is a former Secretary General of the Commission. She succeeded David O'Sullivan in that role. There is a concern about us no longer having Irish people in that stream. Irish people are not occupying the types of roles previously occupied by Ms Day, Mr. O'Sullivan and other officials. Perhaps we all got a little bit complacent about that. What would Ms Day suggest we should do to try to get back into that stream?
I thank the witnesses for their excellent presentations. Before I ask my questions, I echo Deputy Calleary's remarks regarding Irish influence within the institutions. Ms Day set a high bar for others to follow. I fear that we do not have the numbers there. I say that as someone who managed only two years in Brussels and then came home and so I am, in part, responsible.
I want to focus on a number of issues that were raised initially by Ms Day but also by Professor Barrett. The first issue is the role of national parliaments. There is an understandable focus on the important role of citizens' dialogues, with which I am familiar from a previous life. That is so important. In previous lengthy discussions about the future of Europe, the formation of treaties and the draft constitution, the focus was very much on Brussels and the institutions of the EU. One of the gaps, which Professor Barrett elaborated on, is the role of national parliaments. This role is even more important than that of citizens' dialogues. We are the legislators, the elected public representatives and the front-facing part of democracy, be it domestic or European. There must be a role that is far greater than having debates and discussions like this. There needs to be a formal decision-making process.
Deputy Calleary rightly referred to the importance of the parliament and the centralisation of power within the European Council. What is the role of a body such as the Conference of Parliamentary Committees for Union Affairs of Parliaments of the European Union, COSAC? Where is the formal involvement of member state parliaments, national and regional, in the next stage of the EU? Taking in context the different approaches to negotiating trade agreements and the fact that mixed agreements have to go to national parliaments, there is a gap in engaging national parliaments. We know what happened in terms of the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement, CETA, and the Wallonian Parliament. National parliamentarians no longer attend the European assembly. That has not happened for decades. The dual mandate has been removed. Our MEPs play a vital role. Many of them engaged with this committee last week and we had a good discussion on this issue. It comes back to subsidiarity, which is a word I do not like to use but it is central to everything that is done in the EU and how we get what is discussed at a European level translated to citizens.
The key aspect of that is one's national parliament, and for other countries more so than Ireland, regional parliaments. Professor Fabbrini referenced previous models such as Messina and the lessons that can be learned. Some of them were successful, but all were not. Previous discussions that led to a treaty change were successful while others were not. Were the discussions that led to the Nice and Lisbon treaties successful, in that they were rejected initially by the Irish population, the issues were hijacked and it became about fringe issues rather than the central topics? We do not have a European constitution. Following years of top-level work on that by people such as John Bruton and the witnesses, it fell at the first hurdle. How do we ensure that this does not happen? We accept that this process may lead to treaty change. We should not fear that in a post-Brexit era but it does not have to be an inevitability. Maybe we should park that. If it comes to that, it comes to that and we will deal with it then.
I believe that the role of national parliaments from the get-go needs to be focused on identifying the common policies and the gaps in the European process that need to be fixed. If not for the pandemic, would we be talking about health competencies? What are the common areas? We had a really illuminating discussion with our MEPs last week and we are doing some work on the migration and refugee crisis. Is this as big an issue for us in Dublin as it is for colleagues in, say, the Italian Parliament or the Greek Parliament? We know it is not. The same applies in regard to issues around the rule of law and the impact of Brexit. These are far bigger issues for Ireland than for Bulgaria.
We talk about the importance of citizens' dialogues. What is important is the outcome of that process and how we deal with issues more fairly. The Union, I would argue, is stronger now than ever before. It is more important now than ever before. The response to Covid has been effective but limited. It has not been limited by effort but by circumstance and ability. The budget that was agreed yesterday in the European Parliament is sizeable and has the ability to do a lot of good. We are, however, great at talking about the EU when we need to blame someone or to criticise. This happens a lot, but it is not necessarily an issue for the witnesses but for the wider public and particularly parliamentarians in national parliaments. Where is our responsibility as elected representatives to talk about all the good things? Where in the national media was the European budget reported yesterday? Why are we not discussing the co-operation between member states about Romanian doctors going to Italy or French patients going to German hospitals? Why are we not talking about EU stockpiling and the work that is going on in Finland?
The greatest lesson of Brexit is that if one spends 45 years attacking something, it is very hard to convince people in six weeks the merits of remaining in it. That is not the fault of the Union. A lot of people like to point to the institutions not communicating Europe. I have been critical of the Commission in saying that it could sell itself better. This process needs to focus on the role of national parliamentarians. People will generally know how their like Deputy, MP or Assembly member is but they might not know who their MEP is. They probably do not know the identity of the Commissioner for Agriculture. That is the difficulty in this process. I would appreciate the views of all three witnesses on how national parliamentarians could, if not take ownership in this regard, have far more than a consultative role in order that they can push this along in a timeline that I would hope would be a lot more ambitious than years, although I share Deputy Calleary's slight cynicism in that regard.
Professor Federico Fabbrini:
I thank both Deputies for their insightful questions. I will try to address all of the points they raised with three quick answers from my side. Deputy Calleary raised the issue of the delay in the process and the timeframe in that regard going forward. The expectation has always been that the German Council Presidency would be in the position to launch the conference.
Many in the European Parliament and the Commission hoped that this would be the case. As it is now 11 November, I am not 100% sure that it will happen because of the challenges with the pandemic which Professor Barrett mentioned.
I want to bring the outcome of the latest Council of Ministers in the French Government on 4 November to the attention of the committee. The French Government has already put forward, in French, a communication on the plans for France's Presidency of the EU Council in the first semester of 2022, which is a little over a year from now. The French Government has been adamant in saying that it will close the Conference on the Future of Europe on its watch. That injects some optimism that the process will not be dragged on forever and that we will have time to finalise this initiative and make it more concrete.
Regarding the role of the institutions of the European Council and Parliament, I mentioned in my study for the AFCO community that I think the intergovernmental trends at play in the EU system of governance are worrying and have to be tackled. What we have witnessed over the last decade is a major difficulty for the European Union in addressing its crises, including the euro crisis, the migration crisis and now the rule of law crisis, the environmental crisis, the issue of enlargement and, of course, the pandemic. Decisions on these issues have to be taken exclusively in intergovernmental fora. The EU needs intergovernmental fora but the genius of the original EU constitutional architecture was that intergovernmentalism was balanced out with supranational features. We need to rediscover that equilibrium and that is why institutional questions need to be part of the plan for the Conference on the Future of Europe.
I thank Deputy Richmond for his questions on this third point. The Conference on the Future of Europe mirrors or reminds us to some extent of prior initiatives like the Messina Conference or the Convention on the Future of Europe 20 years ago. Deputy Richmond rightly stated that the convention ended up being a failure. The treaty establishing a constitution for Europe never entered into force and we had to opt for a back-up solution in the Lisbon Treaty. That is precisely why we should be thinking about technical but important issues like treaty changes or the procedures we need to put in place to make sure the Conference on the Future of Europe does not fail. The experience 20 years ago with the Convention on the Future of Europe was that we started discussing substantive issues but we did not really tackle how to make sure those constitutional innovations could enter into force. I agree with what Dr. Day said about focusing on the substance, what the conference is good for and what important reforms we need to introduce because citizens asked for them. However, and perhaps I am biased because I am an EU lawyer and see myself as a technician in this, it is crucial that we as elite are also mindful of the institutional challenges connected to this process. We must make sure we design the conference in such a way that we prevent an expected failure, which would almost certainly be the case if we were to run into the process of treaty amendment.
Dr. Catherine Day:
I will respond to a few different points. For as long as I have been involved with EU issues, there has been a quest by the institutions to convince the citizens of what a wonderful thing the EU is. There have always been different attempts to find a project that will unite people. However, the modern world is so complex now that there is not any single reason for such things.
The old post-war reasons of coming together so that never again would European countries go to war with each other does not catch the citizen imagination anymore. In the age of social media and immediate responses to everything, more than ever there is a need to find a way to have a quiet deliberative contact with citizens. That is why I think Ireland has something to offer in our experience of citizens' dialogue. My experience of looking at the previous ones and in the one that I am involved in now is that if one gives people objective information and time to think it through and discuss it, more often than not, they come to very sensible conclusions. We need to keep trying to have that.
Post-Brexit, for the small EU countries it is more important than ever that they find a way to explain the EU to their citizens. We are going to find that need here when the UK is no longer there. Returning to Ireland after so long in Brussels, I am really struck by how much Ireland is in an Anglosphere. We hardly ever discuss what happens on the Continent either in terms of politics, issues or even how they do things yet everyone is an expert on the United States, Australia or Canada. Why is that? It is because we are caught in an English-speaking environment. This could be a role for the national parliaments of the smaller countries. We will not be alone in this. We will all have to make a much bigger effort to understand the thinking, particularly in France and Germany, but also in looking for alliances with other countries. One must give to get. We might have to understand why the northern or eastern countries are so much more focused on issues that we do not think are important. During Brexit we saw a fantastic united effort by our politicians and our diplomats to fan out across Europe and to explain the Good Friday Agreement and Northern Ireland. In every foreign ministry in every other member state now there are people who really deeply understand it. Perhaps we cannot make that effort every time but we need to be building up a bedrock of understanding. The role of the Conference of Parliamentary Committees for Union Affairs, COSAC, and the national parliaments will be as much about that as it will be about looking at the legislation, particularly since many EU policies are fairly mature now and there will be much less legislation in future. What must come in its place is much more discussion about how we tackle different issues together. Small countries do not have the expertise or the resources of the bigger countries but they often find more pragmatic ways of advancing policy objectives than the bigger countries. A whole new world is opening up there and we will all miss the expertise of the UK. Somehow we have to find a way to replace it.
My point on the Anglosphere also relates to Deputy Calleary's question of why there are so few younger Irish people joining the institutions. One thing is that we were all infected a little by the British media and by rubbishing Brussels as very bureaucratic and not a cool, exciting place to be. My experience is that is very far from the truth. It is a fascinating career for anyone. The second problem is that we are very poor at languages and one must have a second language to get a permanent position in any of the other institutions. We simply have not worked on that. Even when people put down Irish as a second language, they regularly fail the test because their Irish is not good enough to qualify as a second language. We need to talk up the importance of careers in the European institutions but we also need to make sure that people understand that there is a language requirement and perhaps facilitate intensive language courses for people who are candidates for competitions. One needs to build up an intake at the bottom in order that 20 years later those people come through to the senior levels. There are also other ways, such as national civil servants spending a few years in the different institutions. We need to deploy all these things because it will be much harder and much more important in future in the wake of the British departure that we have people who understand the Irish situation, not in any sense taking national instructions, but the reason the institutions are keen on a broad degree of representativity is because one cannot make good laws and policies if one does not understand the national circumstances of each member state.
Those two points are very important.
It is important to try to get people to focus on how the wider EU works. We all inevitably tend to look at it from our own position. For example, when something bad happens in the world, very often people ask why did the EU not do something. We need to have that debate with people and we need to discuss whether we would be willing to give up the principle of unanimity in foreign policy. If we wait for the last member state to agree on a statement or an action, the EU will never be quick to respond. We have to take it from the example of what is it that is holding the EU back rather than immediately ask what most people will find an extremely tedious question about whether they are willing to give up unanimity in foreign policy issues. The lesson that I am learning from the citizens' dialogue is that we have to be willing to explain in ordinary language and ordinary terms, give people time to think about these issues, and then ask them to come to a conclusion.
I will make one further comment on Deputy Calleary's question, and that is about the digital exclusion. We were quite slow to move the Citizens' Assembly on gender equality online because we were worried about many things, including that. When we surveyed the members, however, we found that very few of them were not willing to go online. People were very familiar with Zoom, for example, using it for family quizzes, family get-togethers and all the rest of it. We offered training to those who were not sure that they could manage. The reliability of broadband is still an issue, but again most people have managed to overcome that in our experience. For what it is worth, I do not think the issue of digital exclusion should necessarily be a hamper to having the citizens' dialogue online.
Professor Gavin Barrett:
The other speakers have covered a lot of the ground I wanted to. On Deputy Calleary's question about delay, the original idea was that this process would kick off to coincide with the 70th anniversary of the 1950 Schuman Declaration that launched the European Union, as it were, but it has been delayed for a number of reasons I mentioned, particularly Covid-19 but also the difficulty in getting someone to chair it. Also, some member states are less enthusiastic than others. Professor Fabbrini mentioned the hope that has been expressed that this would end by the French Presidency in the first half of 2022. I doubt, to be honest, the capacity of the member states to get it done by that time. The Franco-German non-paper of November 2019 anticipated the whole process kicking off in January 2020 and that it would end in the French Presidency. If we are now in November and it has not kicked off yet, we are really looking at the debate ending, at the earliest, towards the end of 2022 and perhaps even into 2023. Remember, that only involves a report to the European Council. After that, there must be an actual debate among the member states on treaty change. It is going to be a little slower than we would like. That is not all bad because it gives time for deliberation and thinking, but it lacks the element of urgency or speed that it might otherwise have had.
Deputy Calleary also mentioned online exclusion, and Dr. Day mentioned the key reasons for that, and I think it is the absence, for linguistic reasons really, of a single and political space at a European level. To a large extent, that is something that results in the debate at European level not always coming down to national level. We do not have one single European political space; we have 27 different political spaces. Yes, online exclusion is a reality. There is only an elite of us who can take part in these things. The Internet is there for all of us, but how many of us actually use it? We should be grateful that it is there, though, and that it lets those who have an interest get in there, but the problem is generating an interest for the others.
I echo what Dr. Day said. It will be vital in the context of Brexit, a situation in which we can no longer hold on to the coat tails of the British at this stage of the debate in the UK, that we generate our own debate on the very important European issues out there.
Deputy Richmond raised the very important question of the rule of national parliaments. With all the focus on citizens' dialogue, it is possible to lose sight of the vital and ongoing role of national parliaments. In a study of the role of national parliaments by Hafner et al., parliaments were divided into five kinds. There are those that scrutinise, in other words, consider EU issues at length without necessarily influencing policy debates. There are debating arenas - chambers that strongly mobilise the chamber through debates on European issues. There are policy shapers like the Danish Parliament that influence government positions through mandates or scrutiny reserves. There are Commission watchdogs that participate in the political dialogue and the early warning mechanism - dialoguing with the Commission, if you like. There are scrutiny laggards that do not do an awful lot. The actual role of a parliament depends on a lot of factors, including the relative power of the parliament in the national system. If the national parliament is not very powerful in the national system, it is unlikely to exercise a very strong role in European issues.
Another point that must be made about this is that the role a national parliament is going to have must be both selected and seized. The Irish Parliament, and Senator McDowell had a lot to do with this, seized the agenda to a certain extent when it came to the role of the Seanad in respect of Brexit by bringing people in and getting interested parties and stakeholders, particularly from Northern Ireland, to talk about Brexit. It is up to the Oireachtas to seize the agenda and it is up to this committee to a certain level to decide what it wants to do with regard to this conference. It can play a hugely important role in bringing in interested persons and stakeholders, providing a link between the national debate and the European debate and to that extent, filling in the gap that exists between European and national levels. However, this is not something that will happen by itself. It needs to be seized by the scruff of the neck by the Oireachtas and this committee.
COSAC has a role but it is a limited one. Its role is to put parliamentarians in contact with each other and to a certain extent put them in contact with the ongoing European-level debate. The focus is really on the national parliaments and what they can do. The Oireachtas can play a key role in this regard and I very much hope that it seizes it with regard to the conference.
I join with others in expressing my gratitude for the comprehensive presentations from our three experts. We covered a lot of ground so I will not re-trample it but I want to get back to a very basic question. There is a difference of opinion - certainly of emphasis - in the presentations we have received relating to what the conference is for. Is it a bottom-up exercise asking the citizens of Europe how they envisage the EU in the future or is it the case that these are suggestions for change? From a democratic perspective, we would say that it should the former. We ask citizens what they want. At the same time, I cannot envisage a conference on the future of Ireland asking people what they think Ireland should look like and expecting to receive detailed and rational proposals. One would get everything so it needs to be focused.
In his presentation, Professor Fabrini underscored how the inevitability of further integration is the bedrock of future direction. That is the view of the French President. We have a lot of work to do to bring people with us on that journey if that is a view to be realised.
There is almost a view among some that whatever people say, this is the right thing so we must drive the agenda. That view is doomed to fail in my judgment.
Outside the scope of what we talked about, in respect of one issue that will be on our collective agenda, I would be interested if anybody has any views on a European perspective on governance. Beginning in the US in the aftermath of the most recent set of elections, there is a view of the future of democracy within the US. It is obviously a union of states that is not governed on the basis of one person, one vote and each vote being equal. As we can see, it is possible to lose the popular vote in a presidential election and still win the presidency. Similarly, as was pointed out in newspaper articles this week, there is more and more urban focus in the future so it is reckoned that in the foreseeable future, 70% of US senators will be elected by 30% of the population. How does that manifest itself in a European context? Is there tension relating to the European Council where regardless of whether it is Malta or Germany, everybody has an equal vote? Is governance an issue we need to grapple with in the future? We saw one of the fundamental issues in the rejection of the most recent changes. What had to be fixed related to the removal of a commissioner for every member state. What is the witnesses' take on future governance of the Union and how democracy is to be manifest in this context?
A citizens' assembly, which was proposed by Eamon Gilmore, has been extremely successful in dealing with significant issues here but it was successful because it was focused on a single theme, be it, marriage equality or the eighth amendment. Obviously, Dr. Day's own agenda is a wider one and I would be interested in hearing her take on whether a broader focus can work in a citizens' assembly of that type.
I thank Dr. Day, Professor Fabrini and Professor Barrett. Like everyone else said, it has been incredibly comprehensive. My only apology to the witnesses is that I did not bring my glasses and cannot make out the books the witnesses have on their bookshelves behind them.
Like many of my books. Some of this has already been dealt with. There is significant disengagement from politics. People have spoken about the US and what happened in Great Britain with Brexit. Politics on both a domestic and Europe-wide basis has not delivered for certain people and sometimes they will go in directions we do not necessarily want them to go. We talk about how popular the European project is in this State and across the island but if one went back ten years and more regarding the European methodology for dealing with the banking crisis, one would get a different result on the street in Ireland.
Professor Fabrini talked about weaknesses. How does he see some of these being rectified? I know we talk about pandemic recovery. We now have conversations about the rule of law and health competencies.
People see there are problems with Europe. The European Union and we ourselves have had to contravene certain rules to allow for major state intervention to get us through this. There is a fear of further integration, of the possibility that it is a further drive towards privatisation and against the possibility of state intervention. There is that wider fear of a European army.
Professor Fabbrini spoke about the intergovernmental pathway. Perhaps I have taken this the wrong way but there is a possibility with all of that that we could end up with a number of tiers of European interaction and relationships. We might end up not with a two-tier Europe but one with three or four tiers and I am unsure how exactly that would work.
I really like the idea of engaging with people and asking them what they want while at the same time having very specific conversations. Anybody who has ever had a public meeting that directly related to people's lives knows it can be very difficult to get people interested in stuff that directly relates to them. The question for us, and this has probably come up over the last while at state parliaments in general, is that there is a notion that this State has relied on Britain to do much of the due diligence. There is consequently a need for us to build up capacity to ensure we are on top of what is happening with legislation but also with what the moves are within Europe. If the witnesses can answer those questions in the next 20 minutes, I will be delighted.
Professor Federico Fabbrini:
To answer Deputy Ó Murchú's question, it is a book on the withdrawal agreement with a preface by Mr. Michel Barnier. It was published last week and may perhaps be of interest to the committee as it is the first and most comprehensive book looking at the Brexit deal.
Joking aside, I am very happy to address the other points that were raised. I will start with Deputy Haughey's question. He hit on one of the big difficulties of the conference which has to simultaneously be a bottom-up process involving citizens but also, necessarily, a top-down exercise where the elite - whatever that means - must identify some for priority issues for change. Whenever one talks about institutional questions, it is, as has been pointed out many times, really hard to involve the citizens and yet good institutions are crucial for good democracies. This is why it is inevitable that these questions need to be tackled. The organisation of the conference will have to find a way to reflect that. The model of the Convention on the Future of Europe in the early 2000s is potentially the solution to follow. In that case there would be a relatively small group of people gathering and deliberating but with channels of dissemination at the national level, particularly through the involvement of national parliaments which allow for the involvement of citizens on the ground to discuss those issues.
There was a question on governance. It is crucial that the governance system of the European Union be addressed. We currently have an architecture for decision-making in Europe which is, to a large extent, the result of incremental developments without much grand design behind it, and we see the limits of that.
We have seen it throughout all the crises we have faced. We are now stuck in a situation where it is very hard for us, as a Union, to move forward on issues like the environment because states can wield a veto on issues like fiscal capacity and the development of a large recovery plan because states have a veto on own resources in the new multi-annual financial framework, MFF. Of course, the same applies to foreign policy where Europe remains a dwarf. It has no capacity to cobble together a single position on conflicts at its back door like the one in Nagorno-Kabarakh.
Addressing those governance weaknesses is, therefore, crucial. It has been emphasised rightly that this will not be easy and might even lead towards a multi-speed European Union. We already know that multi-speed is a component of the process. There is the eurozone, among others, of which Ireland is a key part, not least because the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, is now the president of the Eurogroup, has a very clear and strong leading role on the Economic and Monetary Union, EMU, and eurozone governance. The eurozone is a sub-club within the whole EU-27 and as we move forward, it might become even more separate and even more integrated. I mentioned earlier a number of different treaties adopted in the past decade to deepen further the governance of the Economic and Monetary Union, the European Fiscal Compact, the European Stability Mechanism, ESM, the Single Resolution Fund. That all points towards almost a decoupling of the eurozone and the EU-27. We are not yet at that point and we could have a long discussion on whether it is positive or not but it is a trend, a trend of decoupling and it is something the Conference on the Future of Europe will also have to consider in its work. That is why, in my report for the Parliament, I suggested a political compact as an add-on to the fiscal compact to make the EU and specifically the EMU more democratic and effective.
Clearly there are multiple challenges ahead but I would also like to really praise the work of the Oireachtas joint committee on this. To my knowledge, not many national parliaments have actually started a conversation on those topics, so that puts Ireland in a very good position to influence this. If one considers also the very positive experience of the citizens' assembly tradition in this country, including the latest exercise led by Dr. Day, this could be an area where the country punches above its weight. Even if Ireland is a relatively small state among the 27, it actually has many resources.
I mentioned earlier that the overall positive attitude of the population towards the EU following Brexit is an asset. I encourage the committee to continue its work on this. I remain very optimistic that Ireland could play a very influential role in those discussions, including building bridges across member states on some controversial issues that will inevitably come up in the discussion about the conference. I, of course, remain available to assist as we move ahead.
Dr. Catherine Day:
I echo the compliments. It is very good we are having this discussion and the committee will play a very important role, however the debate begins to shape up. I agree with Deputy Howlin that there is a need for focus and Professor Barrett mentioned the need for a mandate. Again, to refer to the Citizens' Assembly, we are working on the basis of a resolution from the Oireachtas. The Dáil and the Seanad already indicated the topics we should focus on. I agree with Professor Barrett that part of the success of previous citizens' assemblies was that they focused on very controversial but single issues and they were able to give a clear "Yes" or "No" answer back to the Oireachtas.
I do not want to comment on the one on gender equality because it is ongoing but I am already seeing that the citizens are hungry for the information and surprised at what they do not know or how the facts differ from what they thought. That element of providing neutral factual information before the debate, then allowing people to debate it and sometimes to change their opinions, is a valuable process. We can do it in a small country and are building a kind of tradition of doing it. It is not necessarily exportable to everywhere else but it is a model that has demonstrated its benefits.
I would not discount the determination of the future French Presidency to close this debate but perhaps it is no bad thing if it takes us a few years to have this discussion, for many reasons. One of those reasons is that we all know that the world is going to be a very different place in the future. Another is that I do not think that the EU has begun to take the measure of the departure of the UK. More countries would have been willing to go further in many areas but were stopped in their tracks because of strong and determined arguments against different issues. One area where I see future development, which I think would echo with the Irish population, is in the whole area of social policy. That was an absolute taboo for the UK as long as it was a member of the EU. Perhaps the fact that it is going to take longer will give a better result in the end.
I agree with Deputy Howlin who I think was saying that there is no inevitability of getting people on board for further integration. That is a mistake that has always been made in previous treaty changes. The insiders, frustrated at what they could not do, felt that it would be obvious to the population that integration had to go further. I do not think we can take that for granted. I think in large parts of the European Union people feel, "Thus far and no further". A reason for having a debate with citizens is that one has to bring them the arguments as to why we should go further and see if one can get them to support it. If one cannot, one must accept that now may not be the time.
We have all been looking at the United States in recent days and, in many ways, it is far less integrated than the European Union, but it functions as a single country. We are 27 countries that have chosen to pool together certain things but we have still kept things in reserve that we have not chosen to pool together. It cannot be taken for granted that the inevitable direction of travel is going to be towards closer union. One of the things that ultimately took the Tories out of the Union was their objection to the idea of an ever closer Union. That is something that we have to debate and perhaps it needs more time.
There is always a fundamental debate in the EU between representation and efficiency. I am a very impatient person so I am always trying to look for efficient ways to get things done. I have learned painfully over the years that one has got to be attentive to the need to ensure proper representation through things such as one Commissioner per country. I have seen the European Council wrestle with issues where one or two small countries are holding out and the vast majority want to get on with something, but there is respect there for the rights of each individual member. Of course, the smaller member states have to know when to push something that is very important to them and when to go along with what the others want for the sake of keeping the ship together. It is a fluid thing. I do not think it can ultimately be written down in black-and-white treaty language.
We have, in recent years, been missing any kind of tolerance of the fact that the EU cannot do everything. It is a level of governance above the national and below the international. By way of more explanation, we must try to get citizens to understand that at least some of the failings of the EU are because some of its members do not want certain things to happen now. By debating and explaining, we can get a better understanding and people can say that while they would love to do a particular thing, they understand why their neighbours elsewhere in the EU are having difficulties with it at the moment. That tolerance and respect for others - which I hope is coming back, as indicated by the results of the US presidential election - can also be a part of the debate.
Deputy Ó Murchú raised the issue that the Union may become multi-tiered. As Professor Fabbrini said, that will clearly be a way forward. If a majority wants to do something and there are a few outliers, it is highly likely that the majority will decide to go ahead.
There is, however, a fundamental difference between the new EU when compared with from where we have come. I think that as long as the UK was in the outer layer, it was more acceptable and easier for other, smaller countries also to be outside. Now that the UK is not there and that the core of the UK is always going to be in the first tier, there will be real consequences for countries that choose to stay outside. Some countries, such as the Baltic countries, struggled hard to join the euro because they absolutely understood that the core of the Union is going to be where the real decisions are made. That core is going to be the first tier. A country could choose to be in another tier but it will not then be a player. The theory of multi-speed Europe will still be there and will, in some cases, be the reality but if a country wants to be at the heart of Europe and influence decisions, it must understand that it has got to be in the first tier. The departure of the UK is going to change that calculation in different ways.
Leading on from that is the question of replacing our former reliance on the UK. All the smaller member states are understanding that and none of them can replace on its own the huge competence and technical ability that is being lost. We are going to have to work more closely together. That may mean different ways of working and, in Ireland's case, it will mean much better understanding of continental systems, including civil law rather than common law. All of those delights lie ahead of us in the future.
Professor Gavin Barrett:
I will quickly go through the questions that were raised. Deputy Howlin asked a fundamental question about what the conference is for. Is it for consulting citizens on what they want or involving them in a debate, to a certain extent? There is a bit of a dilemma there because it is a top-down process that, at the same time, seeks to get a bottom-up participation, if I can put it that way. A very fine line needs to be tread in that regard. There is a danger of disillusionment in this conference. On the one hand, if the views of the citizenry are not taken into account and do not have a real impact, that carries the danger that people might feel that there is no point in participating in a process such as this. On the other hand, the conference has to achieve something. It cannot achieve nothing and turn into a dialogue that leads nowhere. Previous efforts to involve the citizenry in a dialogue, including, to a certain extent, the citizens' dialogue process of a couple of years ago, have shown that if the process does not lead to anything concrete, it can be disillusioning.
Deputy Howlin also mentioned the tensions that exist in the United States between state rights and democracy. We have precisely the same tensions at European level and, to a certain extent, they are even more intense at European level because there is a stronger sense of national identity within Europe. Those tensions are reflected in America in things such as the role of the Senate and the fact that the President is not directly elected, if you like. We have our own equivalent of that at European level. Qualified majority voting is a kind of halfway house at European level between one vote per state, which would suit small states, and population-based voting which suits the larger states. That is one way in which that tension is reflected. The fact that membership of the European Parliament operates on the basis of digressive proportionality whereby smaller states have larger representation is another example of it. The fact that we still have one Commissioner from each member state is another example of the fact that there is an ongoing tension between majority rule at European level and state rights at national level. That tension will go on and will be a permanent part of membership of the European Union.
There is not a permanent or fixed solution.
There is a gradual shift towards the pooling of power and more federal solutions as member states get to trust one another. There may be an element of this as an outcome of the conference. That logic will make itself prevail, but it is an ongoing tension and something that is capable of giving rise to great controversy. Anyone who examines the case law of the German federal constitutional court will see just how controversial this issue is in Europe.
Deputy Ó Murchú raised a number of issues. Problems with the EU tend to be resolved by a lot of small steps. There is no single solution to the problem of reconciling European integration with the requirements of democracy, but there are many small steps. These include the role of the European Parliament and, vitally, the role of national parliaments as well as citizens' dialogues. The process of citizens' dialogues is becoming part of the solution to the ongoing challenge of reconciling European integration with the needs of democracy.
The Deputy mentioned state aid. An accusation levelled at the EU is that it prevents member states from intervening through state aid. I will issue a reminder in that regard. State aid tends to be a game for the big boys. In other words, the larger member states engage in state aid more than smaller member states do. If state aid was permitted in all states, countries like Ireland would lose out. This has been reflected in the Covid crisis, during which there was a relaxation of state aid rules. The country that piled the most into its state aid was Germany. Lufthansa received a massive amount of state aid, but Ryanair did not. This point should be borne in mind.
The issue of a European army was raised. There is no prospect of that immediately. However, it is true that issues that we are less comfortable with, for example, tax and defence, are gradually being raised at European level. That is normal. We need to consider these issues. Dr. Day has mentioned how, if a country is not in the top tier, it is not in the decision-making arena. That is something we need to think about. We must reflect on whether Ireland's opt-out in justice and home affairs matters should be continued. Why do we have that, what benefit are we gaining from it and are we losing out in terms of decision-making at European level? Many issues need to be debated properly at national level. National parliaments, and this committee in particular, have a large role to play in that regard.
Using an accurate phrase, Deputy Ó Murchú stated that we previously got the UK to do our due diligence for us. That is no longer possible because the UK is not in the EU to do it for us, including at executive or parliamentary level. A response to this change is required. I hope that being here today will help to contribute to that response. It is great that our approach to deliberative democracy is being taken account of at European level. It is also great that we can feed into that process even if, as Dr. Day stated, not all of the solutions we have arrived at can be translated to European level directly.
I thank our guests for a very interesting set of contributions and responses. I hope Dr. Day is not frightened by this, but I agree with her approach, in that we should examine issue-based rather than theory-based changes in planning out the future of Europe. We have to go through a few logical steps. First, what is not happening that people in Europe want to happen? Second, does it need to be done at EU level or, as a subset of that, would it be far better done at EU level? Third, what is stopping it from happening at EU level? Is the issue treaty based or does it arise from a lack of unanimity? Logically, the final step is to determine whether the treaties are preventing something that needs to happen from happening. That is my view of the logical order to be followed if we are to bring citizens on board.
Let us take something controversial, namely, migration. People say that we need to have a common EU response to migration, but can they articulate what that common response will be and are they willing, in the absence of a consensus on the matter, to confer a competence on EU institutions to decide it in a way that might not suit them? I presume that is the underlying attitude in Budapest, for instance, if we forget about Ireland for a second. This seems to be an important point that we need to bear in mind.
Professor Barrett referred to the justice and home affairs opt-out and the question of whether we were missing out on something. Are we missing out on something? I know of no sense in which Ireland is missing out from not being involved in the Schengen arrangements. I do not believe we are, but maybe I am wrong.
This brings me to a second point on which I would like a contribution from any or all of our guests. Post Brexit, Ireland will have a peculiar and unique relationship with the UK because we have a common travel area. This means that, on migration, customs control and so on, we will have to remain integrated in some respects with the UK. We cannot pursue a different approach of an open border, free movement and citizens' rights being mutually agreed as if we were Sicily. We are going to have our own set of issues. This feeds back into the question of home affairs because we and the British have a fairly similar justice and home affairs arrangement. In light of Northern Ireland and the South, diverging our systems gratuitously or unnecessarily would pose significant issues. I hope I do not sound reactionary or too conservative. I am just saying that we should not cod ourselves.
Is the conference driven by an appetite for integration at a theoretical level or is it driven by an appetite for improving effectiveness at a practical level? I hope that Dr. Day is not frightened that I agree with her, but her approach is the pragmatic one to bring citizens along with the whole process. The alternative is to discuss treaty change and amending treaties by qualified majority among member states. That is a theoretical issue that kicks the hornet's nest in terms of popular reaction.
These are my points, and I would like a reaction to them.
I will ask brief questions on what other member states are doing. Is this engagement or conference focused on the easy issues or the difficult ones? The issues that often challenge us are migration, which Senator McDowell mentioned, and defence policy. Is the conference going to do the fluffy stuff that is nice to do and on which it is easy to get everyone's agreement or do the witnesses foresee this engagement being on the real issues that people have a problem with and in respect of which they would like to have input into policy at EU level?
Dr. Day mentioned the difficulty in getting treaties changed. Are other member states considering treaty changes? Is that on the cards? I agree that it is difficult, but it should not stop us from making necessary changes. We have discussed this matter at previous committee meetings and acknowledged the difficulty in Ireland in passing referendums on EU treaties, with issues like defence and a common EU army often coming to the fore. What topics do the witnesses believe will be addressed? It was mentioned that France and Germany had suggested topics. Do we suggest topics to citizens in Ireland or should we ask them what they want discussed?
I thank the witnesses for their presentations. Like Deputy Howlin, I am concerned about how we will engage with the citizen in a dialogue. Many citizens in Ireland are far removed from the EU. Covid-19 has brought the EU to the forefront in their daily lives, given how it is supporting Ireland in combating Covid, but we need to do a little bit more work at local government level.
We do not do that very well at the moment in this country. What do other member states do at local government level to try to improve citizen engagement with the future of Europe?
My apologies for being late. I was speaking in the Dáil this morning.
As I came in, Professor Barrett mentioned a European army and the phrase he used was "no prospect ... immediately". I would like him to please expand on that.
The witnesses may have already dealt with the issue of the loss of the UK from Ireland's perspective from the point of view of influence and if so, ignore it.
My third question or issue is around citizen's dialogue. It is exciting and interesting that it is online because it makes such a difference. At those kinds of meetings in the past, one would be lucky to get 20 people to attend, and generally, those 20 people had their minds already made up. It is great that is getting such participation and numbers.
How much difficulty do the witnesses find in explaining where the EU can and cannot act and for citizens to understand that, perhaps, the request he or she makes may lead to unforeseen outcomes? My experience is that most citizens do not differentiate between what happens at EU level and national level. Since the 2008 crisis, most Irish people think the EU is all-powerful and can do whatever it wants. It can be difficult to differentiate, therefore, between the power of the EU and the national level.
How do the witnesses approach that?
We have approximately nine minutes to feed back. Perhaps, before I let the witnesses back in I will make an observation following on from what Dr. Day said about how we go forward in terms of the dialogue. Sometimes, we can get caught up in trying to speak on behalf of our fellow citizens in terms of their understanding of Europe. Irish citizens are aware of the mechanics of Europe and about Brussels and Strasbourg whether it is with regard to CAP, directives or great opportunities which have arisen through cross-border health directives. If I need my knee replaced, I can go to Turin. If I need some surgery, I can go to some hospital in Spain. There has been enormous progress in terms of interconnectivity.
My only point is that sometimes we miss the quick ones. Citizens throughout Europe will really be interested in the conversation and how to facilitate the conversation. Dr. Day talked about the opportunities around online engagement. We are able to engage with all our European counterparts. In my former position as Minister for Education and Skills, back in April and May we have had conversations with all our colleague Ministers with responsibility for education. It was interactive and we did not have to travel as it was online. There is no reason, for example, why we cannot facilitate that conversation for many of our post-primary students who are studying politics in society at leaving certificate level. It is not necessarily connecting in with Brussels and Strasbourg but why can we not create a mechanism and opportunity for them to have a conversation with their peers in places like Greece, Spain, France and Germany?
I believe Senator Keogan made the point as well in terms of local authorities. The past engagement and the physical one-to-one contact was important. I know that as a former MEP, Deputy Harkin will have had many people from counties Donegal and Sligo over in Brussels to see how things worked in the mechanics of Europe.
Perhaps now is the time to look at online opportunities and facilitate and continue that conversation to help people connect. That is my only input. Other members had a few questions to be answered in the short time period so I will move first to Professor Fabbrini.
Professor Federico Fabbrini:
I thank the Chairman. I have my microphone on correctly now so we should avoid the problems I had earlier.
I understand these are my final remarks so let me try to structure them in three points. In doing so, I will seek to address some of the latest questions I received.
The first point is really on the conference itself. After our conversation this morning, it is clear this project puts itself up for high expectations. We want to involve the citizens and we cannot let them down. Once the project starts, there will be huge pressure to make sure it does not fail. We cannot have citizen participation and ask them what they think about the future of Europe if we do not then follow up on their requests.
In specific response to some of the questions, particularly, from Senator McDowell, there are things we cannot do because of the current treaty structures. In response to Senator Chambers, the conference will have to address difficult questions on which there is no unanimous agreement among the member states, and so on.
That takes me to the second point I wish to emphasise in my concluding remarks. Governance was touched on by a number of Deputies and Senators in their remarks. This is a technical question. People do not get passionate if we talk about intergovernmentalism, la méthode communautaire, der Spitzenkandidatenor whatever. Committee members are representatives of the people and know better than anyone else we need good institutions and good democratic procedures to make sure our constitutional regimes function.
The same is true for the EU. That element, therefore, must be part of the conversation of the Conference on the Future of Europe. It is not something that, perhaps, will warm the heart of many citizens. It is, however, something I believe must be tackled, particularly by the elites, who like the committee members are politicians, or representatives of the European citizens in the European Parliament. I encourage the committee to maintain attention on that point.
I will conclude with a note on the role of Ireland which connects with points Senator McDowell made on justice and home affairs and points my fellow speakers, Dr. Day and Professor Barrett, also emphasised.
I am evermore convinced Ireland is destined to play a leading role in the European Union after Brexit. Ireland remains the only English language country in the European Union and has strong ties with the United States. Only two weeks ago, the Brexit Institute hosted a conference with a leading advisor to Mr. Joe Biden and he basically said the United States will expect Ireland to take up the role the UK usually played in bridging Europe with the United States.
In a sense, I see Ireland as being at the heart of Europe in the future and, of course, the remaining opt-outs Ireland has on a number of European policies, including justice and home affairs, potentially represents an obstacle to that. Europe is moving forward dynamically in those fields. The committee will be aware that, among other things, the European Union recently launched a new European Public Prosecutor's Office which will play an important role in fighting misuse of EU funds in the context of the next multiannual financial framework, MFF, and with respect to world law.
The country will also have to reflect on what its new role will be in the European Union of 27 member states. I mentioned previously that I believe the fact the Minister for Finance of the country is now the president of the Eurogroup is a strong signal that Ireland is perceived by other countries, and crucially, the eurozone countries - the core of the EU - as a key player. That must remain on the agenda of the nation moving ahead.
Dr. Catherine Day:
I will try to be quick. I am not a bit afraid of what Senator McDowell has said. In fact, I welcome the way he crystallises this issue and whether the debate is about an appetite for integration or effectiveness. I, of course, hope that it can be about effectiveness. For example, for a country like France, whose main concern is the place of Europe in the world, the question is how Europe influences the rest of the world. How do we then influence our own destiny by organising ourselves differently? If we could have a focus on effectiveness, even if people articulate it very differently, that would be great. The risk is when one asks 27 members states what to talk about, in order to get agreement one puts everything on the shopping list. That risk has to be overcome to get some kind of focus in the debate.
Many of our citizens are very far away from Europe and we cannot take for granted that they understand how the EU works. At the Citizens' Assembly on gender equality we were asked to give an explanation about the role of the Constitution and how it links into legislation because many of our own citizens do not really understand that. How would they then understand the relationship between the Treaty of Lisbon or even what we have been discussing this morning, which is the role of national parliaments in the wider EU? There needs to be a strong factual information flow to support the conference, however it gets going. We need to connect citizens so they can talk to one another. My experience has been that when one gets people to calmly discuss something on an informed basis and to take the time to do it, it is much easier for them to understand one another's points of view. Sometimes they agree and sometimes they respect the differences. We need to find ways, maybe different ones, to connect ourselves with other European citizens.
Professor Gavin Barrett:
In response to Senator McDowell, like Dr. Day I take the view that effectiveness is the key point here. It is not integration for the sake of integration or, indeed, sovereignty for the sake of sovereignty. It is neither. It is about what works best. We need a real commitment to subsidiarity. Of course if things can be decided at national level they should be but if they need to be done at European level, they should be done at European level as well.
The Senator also mentioned migration. That, remarkably, is a field in which competence has already been adequately agreed. It was agreed as long ago as Amsterdam in 1999 that the difficulty there is the lack of political agreement. However, we cannot give up the search for agreement on that because if we do not have a common approach on migration, we will end up with a lowest common denominator approach and slamming the doors in a way that violates human rights and does a disservice to the country of reception itself. I was struck by the fact that a key role in the vaccine for Covid that was announced the other day was played by the children of Turkish migrants into Germany. They were the ones who discovered it. Migration is an enrichment as well as a challenge for member states.
As regards whether we lose out by not participating in issues of justice and home affairs, I think we do in some ways. We lose out in the substantive issue because we do not get to mould the agenda. It is true that we can opt in afterwards but if one fails to mould the agenda in some way, one loses out to a certain extent. There is a certain degree of resentment there as well because there is a cost to integration. Other states expect that these burdens and costs will be shared equally. There is a certain cost there as well. We lose out by not being in the Schengen zone but we had to choose between the common travel area or Schengen so I completely understand the choice that was made there. I have reservations about extending that to justice and home affairs generally. I am not sure about that. It is something we need to think about but I am fully in agreement that effectiveness is what we should be focusing on there.
Senator Chambers asked about the issues that are going to be discussed. Some of them come from the General Affairs Council, like the security of the Union and its citizens, a successful and inclusive economy, the social aspects of the EU, a strong Union at the global level, and an efficient Union.
Some of those issues, such as health and fiscal policy, have been added because of what is happening. The main division there is between policy issues and institutional issues. Both of them will be raised and the ones more likely to lead to treaty changes are the institutional issues, which may in due course lead to a referendum in Ireland. We have to wait and see in that regard.
Deputy Harkin mentioned the issue of a European army. I have no insight into how the debate on defence will proceed at European level. I note that we already have a Common Security and Defence Policy that can lead to a common defence but that has to be unanimously agreed. Ireland can vote against that if it wants and it has a constitutional bar on participating in a common defence if it does not agree to it. We are perfectly safe as regards neutrality. At the same time, we need to participate in the debate. The issue of defence looks quite different on the other end of the European Union, in Poland or Finland, for example. It is something we at least need to talk about at some stage. I would not be worried about the treaty rules in that regard. As I said, the notion of a European army is simply not on the agenda. I would not be worrying about that.
I thank all three contributors. Go raibh maith agaibh uilig fá choinne an eolais agus na sonraí inniu. Bhí an díospóireacht iontach saibhir agus beidh an léargas iontach tábhachtach don choiste seo. Tá muidne ag éisteacht faduda na deiseanna atá i gceist sa todhchaí san Eoraip agus na deiseanna poist a chruthú san Eoraip fosta. Tá muidne ag amharc ar an nasc agus an caidreamh idir na tíortha éagsúla agus ag dúil go mór leis an mbealach difriúil atá i gceist trí chúrsaí digiteach. Gabhaim buíochas arís leis na finnéithe as a gcuid ama inniu. Táimid fíorbhuíoch dóibh as an gcomhrá suntasach.