Thursday, 8 November 2007
Dick Roche (Minister of State with special responsibility for European Affairs, Department of Foreign Affairs; Minister of State, Department of An Taoiseach; Wicklow, Fianna Fail)
I am grateful to Deputy Costello for raising this matter because it is important to have a full, frank, open and honest debate on the issue. The reform treaty was agreed by European Heads of State and Government at the informal European Council in Lisbon on 18 and 19 October. It is planned that the treaty will be signed at the European Council in December. Thereafter, the treaty will need to be ratified by each member state.
After 50 years of European integration, the EU treaties were in need of updating. That process has been under way since the European Convention in which I participated with former Deputies John Bruton and De Rossa. Deputies Gormley and Pat Carey operated as alternates.
The reform treaty is an important achievement for the EU. We now have a treaty that will allow the European Union to turn away from institutional reform and focus instead on delivering tangible benefits to our citizens. The treaty preserves the essential substance and balance of the draft European constitution, which was the product of lengthy and inclusive negotiations culminating during Ireland's 2004 EU Presidency. It is a pity the treaty is not contained in a single document. That is the format we would have wished for but events conspired to change the circumstances.
The treaty will serve to equip the European Union to deal with the challenges of the future. Ratification of the EU reform treaty will be a priority for the Government. It is, of course, a matter for each country to determine how it will ratify the treaty and most of our EU partners intend to do so through parliamentary means. The Minister for Foreign Affairs has requested legal advice from the Attorney General on whether ratification of the EU reform treaty will require an amendment to the Constitution. This is a legal formality that is observed on each occasion that an EU treaty comes for ratification.
As on previous occasions, a referendum commission will be created to inform the public about the treaty and to encourage citizens to exercise their right to vote. As was the case with the previous EU referendum in 2002, the referendum commission will be properly resourced so as to enable it to carry out its role in an effective manner. I have already had a meeting with the Minister for Finance on financing for the commission.
The Government will also undertake an information campaign to explain the contents of the treaty and its benefits to Ireland. This is a challenging task given the inevitably complex character of the reform treaty. Nonetheless, it will also be an important opportunity for us to have an informed and comprehensive debate about Ireland's place within the European Union.
To this end, work is already under way on producing accessible material that explains the main elements of the treaty in plain language. More detailed information on the treaty is already available on the website of the Department of Foreign Affairs. Public representatives have a special responsibility to promote constructive, well-informed public debate on issues of such national importance. In that regard, I urge all Members of the Oireachtas to engage with the public on the treaty.
The National Forum on Europe will also have an important role to play in promoting greater awareness of, and debate on, the reform treaty. The forum has done an outstanding job since it was established. We are the envy of many of our EU partners in having such a forum and I look forward to its work. I also look forward to working with the Joint Committee on European Affairs and I have had some informal contact with the Chairman already.
We have considerable experience of ratifying European treaties by referendum and our track record is good. The first Nice referendum taught us the salutary lesson that there can be no room for complacency. The House need have no concerns about complacency while I am in this role. There is wide public appreciation of Europe's importance to Ireland and of the role that we play within the European Union. The Irish public has been shown to be consistently among the most positive in Europe about the advantages of EU membership.
Along with my colleagues in Government, I look forward to playing an active role in informing the public about this important treaty. Colleagues from Fine Gael and the Labour Party have indicated they will be active. I welcome the positive statements on the record of this House by Deputies Kenny and Gilmore. I will write to all Members of the Oireachtas in the next few days providing details of the treaty. I will be available to Deputies and Senators from all sides of the House and from all viewpoints, those in favour and those opposed, if further briefing or explanations are required.