Tuesday, 20 January 2004
European Presidency: Statements.
Gay Mitchell (Dublin South Central, Fine Gael)
I thank Deputy Kenny for sharing his time with me. I also thank the Taoiseach for his kind words about the Committee on European Affairs which works on a cross-party basis. Often when we meet in the basement we wonder if anybody notices. Therefore, I appreciate the Taoiseach's comments.
I regret the rise in euroscepticism apparent in certain parts of the State. As we commence our Presidency of the EU, when we look back on our membership of the European Union we should recognise that the greatest benefits we have gained have not been the ones on which we traditionally put emphasis. We had a meeting before lunch with a delegation from the Foreign Affairs Committee of the British House of Commons at which one of the members of that committee said Ireland would be in favour of the European Union because we received all those transfers. We have let it go abroad that the so-called transfers have led us to the success Ireland has had in economic terms. However, at their height, the transfers were of the order of 3% of gross domestic product. They never made as significant a contribution as is sometimes thought. Having built up these contributions and as we move towards becoming a net contributor which, from what I hear, will not happen for another seven or eight years, it is easy for people to build scepticism.
We have built on the wrong foundations. Those on which we should have built are of peace and stability, which are the prerequisites for prosperity. We cannot have prosperity in Europe without peace and stability, and the European project concerns those. That is how we have prosperity in Ireland and throughout Europe. It is in our interests and not just those of the applicant states that enlargement takes place and that we welcome into the European Union, as soon as possible and practicable, all European democracies capable of taking on the responsibility of membership. That is why there are interesting and exciting opportunities in this Presidency not just to complete the Intergovernmental Conference, which is important, but also to bring about successfully the most significant enlargement of the EU since its foundation.
We often talk about Irish sovereignty but, and I hope this does not offend anyone, we never truly became sovereign until we joined the European Union. Our currency was dependent on what happened in Britain. If it devalued its currency, we devalued ours, and if its interest rates increased or decreased, so did ours, sometimes with 20 minutes' notice. Our exports were mainly agricultural and went mainly to Britain. We now have diverse exports and information technology, financial services and pharmaceutical sectors. That is not just because of investment and transfers from Europe but also because of the Single European Act and the confidence that gave us as a nation which was part of the European Union.
If those involved in the 1916 Rising or the foundation of the State could have looked forward to us taking on our sixth Presidency of the European Union, they would have been very proud. We should also be proud because this is a real indication of our sovereignty and the role we play in the world. I recall that, not too long ago before we joined the EU, few countries wanted to locate embassies in Ireland. We had the British and American Embassies and a few from Africa and some but not all the major EU states. Now more countries want to locate embassies here than we can facilitate in so far as doing so would stretch our small diplomatic service if it had to open embassies in their countries. These countries do not locate embassies here because of a liking for large houses and chauffeur-driven cars but because they want the ear of a sovereign Government and Parliament which has a role to play in the world and at the governing table of the single largest political and economic bloc in the world.
These are challenging and interesting times. I join Deputy Kenny in wishing the Taoiseach and the Government well and assuring them of our co-operation in any way we can in the proper conduct of the responsibilities of the EU.
Last year the Oireachtas Joint Committee on European Affairs, on an all-party basis, invited David Begg, general secretary of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, to chair an advisory group to the committee. The group consisted of Dr. Garret FitzGerald, Mr. David Andrews, Mr. Noel Dorr and Ms Bride Rosney. It was a distinguished group which gave its services to the committee free of charge. We asked them to examine the issue of Third World hunger, HIV-AIDS, indebtedness and trade, and to report to the committee on how we might help the Government to make these issues a Presidency priority. We felt that, as a country which suffered a famine in recent history with the associated effects of the Irish diaspora and loss of life, Ireland had some credibility, especially in the light of the work of missionaries and non-governmental organisations, and that this was an area where we could make real progress during Ireland's Presidency.
While an ongoing multi-annual agenda has been agreed between Ireland and the other countries which will be taking on the Presidency, which is welcome, I am pleased the Third World issues to which we referred have been put on the agenda. Members of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the British Houses of Parliament whom the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs met today remarked that we had put this issue on the agenda. We can drive the agenda forward if we have the credibility of reaching our target of Third World contributions of 0.7% of gross national product. It is easy for us to ask others to forgo or reschedule debt when no Third World countries are indebted to us.
Meeting our UN commitment would give us a certain moral authority, not just with existing EU states but also the accession states. Some of the accession states are not meeting their target, for understandable reasons. For various reasons, approximately €20 billion of EU aid does not find its way to the Third World. I urge the Taoiseach to pursue this issue with vigour.
I very much regret that Ireland's opportunity to conclude a European common defence agreement on terms acceptable to Ireland, with an opt-in clause, is not being pursued with the vigour and conviction it should. A protocol has yet to be written and it could accommodate non-NATO members as well as NATO members, giving Ireland the opportunity not just to opt in, but to acquire an umbrella of defence were we ever to require it. I urge the Taoiseach to revisit this issue. I know Fine Gael sounds out of tune with everybody else in the House when we raise this issue. However, this is an important issue and there is now an opportunity for Ireland to shape the protocol. I urge the Taoiseach to take it.