Tuesday, 18 May 2004
Ceisteanna — Questions.
Question 3: To ask the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent contacts with other EU Heads of Government; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [12538/04]
Question 6: To ask the Taoiseach if he will report on the ceremonies held in Dublin on 1 May 2004 to mark the enlargement of the European Union; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [13273/04]
Question 7: To ask the Taoiseach if he will report on his discussions with other EU Heads of Government during the enlargement ceremonies in Dublin on 1 May 2004; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [13274/04]
Question 12: To ask the Taoiseach the EU leaders he has met since the enlargement ceremonies in Dublin on 1 May 2004; the progress made in regard to his efforts to find agreement on a new treaty; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [14240/04]
Question 13: To ask the Taoiseach the matters discussed and conclusions reached at his meeting with the Chinese Prime Minister, Mr. Wen Jiabao; if the issue of human rights abuses was raised; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [14241/04]
Question 16: To ask the Taoiseach when and the locations at which he plans to meet the President of the United States, George Bush, during his visit to Ireland; if they will meet separately from the EU-US summit context; if he has discussed the visit with the President or White House staff since 1 May 2004; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [14372/04]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 3 to 17, inclusive, together.
The ceremonies in Dublin and the events which took place around the country to mark enlargement on Saturday, 1 May 2003 are widely recognised as having been a success. It was an enormous honour for the Irish Presidency to welcome our new partners into the European Union. As well as being a key highlight of our Presidency, I am satisfied that we succeeded in making this a day to remember for Europe and all Europeans.
As Deputies will be aware, I met my European Council colleagues over dinner in Farmleigh. I also participated in a joint press conference with the President of the European Commission, Romano Prodi, and the President of the European Parliament, Pat Cox, in advance of the enlargement ceremonies on the morning of 1 May. I had the opportunity to have a meeting with the new Spanish Prime Minister, José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, on the margins of the dinner in Farmleigh. We had a useful introductory discussion which focused on the Intergovernmental Conference. I also met the Prime Minister of Slovenia, Mr. Anton Rop, in Dublin on Sunday, 2 May. Our discussions focused on bilateral relations, the preparations for the June summit and the Intergovernmental Conference. I will meet Mr. Rop again in Slovenia on 20 May. Earlier on Sunday morning, 2 May, I met Prime Minister Blair to discuss Northern Ireland and European Union issues.
As President of the European Union, I visited the Czech Republic on 22 April, 2004. I delivered a keynote address on the challenges and opportunities of EU enlargement in the Senate building. I also met Prime Minister Spidla during my visit and our discussions focused on the Intergovernmental Conference, IGC, and the draft constitutional treaty. In addition, I launched a photographic exhibition for the Czech group Yes to Europe.
I met Premier Wen of China in Dublin Castle on 11 May. We discussed a range of EU-China and bilateral issues, including trade development, educational co-operation, cultural exchanges, the European arms embargo, human rights, agricultural co-operation and economic and World Trade Organisation matters. The Premier described the great economic and social progress made in China in recent years and his expectations for the years to come. I assured him of Ireland's commitment to strong and friendly relations with China and our interest to contribute to and participate in that continuing development to mutual benefit.
Two weeks ago, on 5 May, I commenced my tour of European Union capitals in advance of next month's European Council. In the first week, I visited Sweden, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland. Last week, I visited Cyprus, Greece, Malta, Italy, Portugal and Spain. In each country, with the exception of Cyprus, I met the Head of State or Government to outline the Presidency's plans for the forthcoming European Council and the IGC. As President Papadopulous of Cyprus was taken ill while I was en route to Nicosia, I met instead Minister Andreas Christou. I subsequently had a telephone conversation with President Papadopoulos. This intensive schedule of visits to all 24 member states will continue over the coming weeks. This week, I will visit the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Austria and Slovenia en route to the EU-Russia summit.
Clearly the IGC has been central to all these meetings. I am satisfied that good progress is being made at both Head of State or Government level and at Foreign Minister level.
I will also attend a number of summit meetings outside Ireland in the period up to the end of June. These include the EU-Russia summit in Russia on 21 May, the EU-Latin American and Caribbean summit in Mexico on 28 and 29 May, the G8 summit in the United States from 8 to 10 June, the EU-Japan summit in Japan on 22 June and the EU-NATO summit in Turkey on 28 and 29 June.
On 17 and 18 June, I will chair the European Council meeting in Brussels. Although the agenda for this meeting is still in preparation, it is expected to focus on the appointment of a new President of the European Commission, JHA issues, follow-up to the declaration on combating terrorism adopted at the European Council in March and a range of external relations issues. A full Intergovernmental Conference will also be held in Brussels. It is intended to conclude the negotiations on the draft constitutional treaty at the IGC.
The arrangements for the EU-US summit are still under consideration. This will be President Bush's first official visit to Ireland and it arises in the context of our Presidency of the European Union. While the agenda for the summit has not yet been finalised, it can be expected that our discussions will focus primarily on the EU-US agenda. Other discussion topics have still to be agreed.
On 21 July, I will travel to Strasbourg to present my report on the Irish Presidency to the European Parliament.
Last Thursday, the Government circulated proposals to all the EU countries suggesting that the EU member states would continue to nominate one Commissioner until 2014, at which point the number of Commissioners would be reduced to 18, and posts would then rotate so that, in one of every three terms, member states would not have a Commissioner. Will the Taoiseach indicate whether that proposal was discussed with the Heads of Government whom he visited or was it discussed during the round of consultations he undertook following his accession as President?
The Convention on the Future of Europe had already suggested a different Commission model in which the number of Commissioners remain the same but only half of them would have voting rights. Can I take it that particular proposal has been abandoned entirely? In respect of the proposal circulated last Thursday, will the Taoiseach comment on where it stands currently?
That proposal was discussed at the March meeting when I gave the report to the European Council. I also discussed it last year, in the preparations for the Presidency, with most of the countries, although perhaps not all of them. It has been discussed by the contact group which met two weeks ago. It was discussed again yesterday at the Foreign Ministers' meeting on the Intergovernmental Conference issues, and I have discussed it with individual countries. As the Deputy is aware, it is not agreed yet because nothing is agreed until everything is agreed, but it has much more consensus.
The other position would have brought in a system where we would move, almost inevitably, to the larger countries having a full-time Commissioner and other countries having a Commissioner who would have been seen to be of lesser status, not only in terms of voting but also in that there would have been two cores — the main Commission group and a parliamentary secretary type structure, as is the case in many European countries. I never supported that system and it was against what was in the Nice treaty.
The Irish people voted on two occasions on the Nice treaty but we were voting on a strict equality position where everyone would be treated equally. That is much better because it is inevitable that Europe will expand to 30 countries at least, if not beyond that, and we will never get a position of equal status among 30 Commissioners at the same level. We may get at least two or three groups but some countries would have liked a small, select inner core, which inevitably would have been the large countries. The Convention proposal was around that arrangement, something the large countries liked but which certainly was not acceptable to the smaller countries. Our effort is to seek something that will remain for a decade, with a Commissioner per member state, and then move to a smaller number on the basis of strict equality.
I thank the Taoiseach for that reply. In respect of agreement on the European constitution, which I hope is concluded, France recently argued that the new treaty could be agreed if more than four-fifths of members ratified it. Does the Taoiseach share that view or has that been reflected to him by his consultation with other leaders?
I will let the Taoiseach in on a secret, not that I have too many of them. At the meeting of the European People's Party Prime Ministers, which we were privileged to hold before the Taoiseach's accession celebrations, the question of the President of the Commission was raised. A number of names were discussed and the Taoiseach's was not among them. Mr. Juncker ruled himself out completely. Given impending battles in the House, will the Taoiseach confirm that he will remain among us and is not interested in the position? Some elements of the media are referring to President Ahern of the Commission.
The Chinese Prime Minister visited Ireland last week. On a number of occasions in the House, Deputy Gay Mitchell had raised the issue of the persecution of Falun Gong practitioners in China. I understood a press conference was to have been called with the Prime Minister, Mr. Wen Jiabao, and the Taoiseach but it was not held. Is there a simple explanation for this or was there a fear that the press conference would be dominated by questions regarding human rights in China?
I was getting so much support from the European People's Party I thought Deputy Kenny was my lobbyist. After the EPP meeting Mr. Jean Claude Juncker publicly supported me and I thought Deputy Kenny was his seconder.
I have not changed my view. A number of names have been mentioned, as Deputy Kenny knows, and it will be difficult to find a resolution on the matter. All the people whose names are seriously in the field are good candidates and the selection will be difficult. The task of managing the 25 countries, the completion of the integration of Bulgaria, Romania and Turkey, the issue of the western Balkans, the next financial perspectives and the new neighbourhood policy is enormously challenging.
The new President will also have to uphold the strength of the Commission. I believe strongly, as Deputies Kenny and Rabbitte do, that we should fight for the Commission. I have expressed that view for the past seven years. I have been around longer than many EU leaders and so I argue that issue with particular strength in meetings against some of my good friends in the larger countries. For that one earns some respect.
For many reasons, political but mainly personal, Europe is not the place for me, whatever else I do. I have admiration for Europe and I like to work there but I have no wish to be there all the time.
The French position that we should have 20 Commissioners from the 25 member states comes from a report of the Convention on the Future of Europe. That report proposed that four fifths of the member states would have a Commissioner. I have been opposed to this proposal from the time it was mentioned in the Convention nearly two years ago. It is a dangerous argument. I am glad to see that what was to have been the launch of that proposal by the French and Germans last week did not take place. It was trailed that France and Germany would make this proposal but it did not happen.
Everyone must be given equal respect and play an equal part. Unanimity is the basis on which we will go forward. Deputy Kenny knows my view on the two-tier arrangement. I am opposed to all those methods. There is a group of integrationists who have an opposing view but I will never agree with them. I have spent years arguing against that system and I am glad it was not launched. I have no doubt the proposal will surface again in some form. These issues return and gain a new life. I was asked about the proposal by many international journalists at a large press conference in Spain last week and I spoke against it.
With regard to the Chinese Prime Minister, we were to spend approximately 45 minutes dealing with issues. As Members will note from the agenda the meeting went on for at least an hour extra, one of the reasons for which was that we did not have simultaneous translation. I had already spoken to some of the Chinese journalists, who are always glad to deal with human rights issues. The problem was one of time. In fairness, Premier Wen had already had a number of interviews with Irish journalists at home and had agreed to do some others later. I do not believe there was a problem.
On the contrary, the Labour Party would be happy to support him if he were offered the position of President of the European Commission. I am unsure of the Taoiseach's position in that regard. Is he putting himself forward for the job or does be believe he will be approached by a broad cross-section of moderate opinion towards the end and brought in as an acceptable compromise? I am not clear from the Taoiseach's reply whether he is a candidate?
What is the position of the Irish Government, in the event of the Taoiseach not being interested, in respect of the retiring President of the European Parliament? I do not wish to make his task in successfully completing the IGC more difficult but does the Taoiseach accept there is a certain amount of apprehension among those who take an interest in European affairs at the notion of Ireland being left for a period without a Commissioner? That issue is one of the fairly straightforward matters raised by people throughout the country. People take pride and comfort from the fact that an Irish Commissioner is President of the European Parliament. There was some surprise regarding the proposals published by the Taoiseach. I repeat I do not raise that issue to make the Taoiseach's task more difficult than it is.
I will deal with the Deputy's final question first. My honest assessment of the situation — we are speaking in this regard of ten years into the future — is that the larger countries would prefer the Convention-type proposal that there should be 30 Commissioners — it is inevitable we will reach that number in this decade. They would like to establish a small executive-type operation or cabinet structure comprising seven, eight or nine countries who would represent the larger countries, and the remaining countries would receive Commission portfolios down the ranks but would not be centrally involved.
The smaller countries among the 15 members previously involved in work on the convention and the ten new accession countries have a combination of views in this regard. The view is that it is far better to remain with the Nice arrangement where we have a Commissioner two out of three times on a strict rotation basis. In that way, smaller countries would always be involved and Ireland, when it does not have a Commissioner, would be represented by that group. That is the preferred position and is the one which I, too, prefer. I was always concerned about the other position though its proposed introduction is ten years away. The larger countries want a handy set-up for themselves with smaller countries on the margins. I believe they are wrong to favour that position because it would result in losing the great concept of acquis communautaire. However, that is what the larger countries would like and we have had to argue strongly against it because if Ireland did not have a Commissioner, we would be represented by like-minded countries.
It is a better system which will work more effectively. A representative group of the like-minded will always be possible with 18 out of more than 30 countries. The Irish people voted on this issue and, for all the reasons I have mentioned, it is much safer. I understand the view expressed by the Deputy but it is not as it would be now and that is the point.
The outgoing President of the European Parliament will be in office until 21 July when the new Parliament meets. If Mr. Cox has sufficient support to win the position of President of the Commission, the Irish Government will support him and that is our clear position. I have been asked that question by several countries and I have informed them of the Government's position.
I am honoured by what has been said by Deputies Rabbitte and Kenny. I have been asked by a substantial number of people, although not a majority. I am third in the pecking order although I am one of the senior people on the Council. I appreciate the interest but it is not for me. It is not what I would like to do with my life in the future.
I appreciate Deputy Ó Caoláin giving way and, in these exceptional circumstances, I thank him very much.
I understand from what the Taoiseach is saying he is not interested in becoming President of the European Commission and is more interested in domestic politics. Given that he said he would remain here to pester us for a long time, does that mean he is looking forward to being an enthusiastic leader of the Opposition in his new role?
I note the Irish Presidency is trying to soften the mutual defence clause in the EU Constitution by inserting a clause that it will not prejudice the specific character of the security and defence policy of certain member states. Is the Taoiseach reluctant to state this clause does not apply to neutral and non-aligned states? Would it not be simpler to do so? The Danish Government has inserted an opt-out clause into the military dimension of the EU. Would that not be the simplest action for Ireland to take?
Regarding the proposal by the EU Environment Commissioner, Margot Wallström, what are the Taoiseach's views on the protocol in the Constitution on sustainable development? Will the Taoiseach and the Government support such a protocol? Was the issue of the status of the Irish language as an official EU language discussed in the bilateral discussions and was any progress made?
I thank the Deputy. The Commissioner has been helpful to the Minister, Deputy Ó Cuív, in his efforts to move the issue forward. I will meet the Austrian Government this week and we will discuss that issue.
On European security and defence, there is no change in the position of last autumn and the agreement still holds. Nobody is opening up that matter. It is anticipated that structured co-operation will be used to develop member states' capabilities. Member states are not required to indicate whether they will participate in structured co-operation at the Intergovernmental Conference and decisions regarding participation will only arise at a later stage. The criteria for participation in the area of structured co-operation are set out in the draft protocol, which includes a reference to capability and use at the request of the United Nations.
Throughout the discussions on security and defence in the IGC the Government, with a number of other Governments, has held the position that any new arrangements should be based on openness, inclusivity and accountability. The current proposal on structured co-operation reflects those general principles and can be supported by Ireland.
The focus on developing capabilities has always been in the context of Petersberg Tasks operations as well as EU support for UN crisis management and we have stuck to that. We have a proven record in peacekeeping crisis management, most recently demonstrated in the Liberia operation. It should be possible to agree arrangements in the EU to facilitate the diversity of the contributions that all partners can bring to this area.
I do not believe there are difficulties with this proposal. If the EU is to make a contribution internationally, we need to further develop its capabilities for conflict prevention. The proposal has been made in the context of conflict prevention and is based on the Petersberg Tasks. Nothing has changed in that regard.
If a proposition regarding the position of President of the European Commission is put to the Taoiseach and he responds positively, I will join colleagues who spoke earlier in wishing him well. Does he not agree, however, that current speculation as to whether he might be offered or would take up this position is a distraction from the real issues, primarily the negotiation of a constitutional treaty?
Does the Taoiseach agree that the content of the treaty is much more important than ensuring finality to the treaty negotiations within the term of the Irish Presidency? Among the drafts reported as being currently under discussion are proposals to extend qualified majority voting to the area of taxation and foreign and security policy. What is the Government's position on these specific areas? Surely the Taoiseach will not support the view that the foreign and taxation policies of this State should be determined by a European Union dominated by the larger members? I ask for clarity on that matter.
As regards the focus of Deputy Sargent, given that the Government did not put forward an alternative proposal during the Irish Presidency regarding Article 1.40 of the draft constitution, which states that EU defence policy shall not prejudice NATO states and shall be compatible with NATO, why did the Government not seek a specific article explicitly recognising the rights and duties of neutral states in the European Union and the right of those states that require a United Nations mandate for military operations? These are matters of concern to us all and I ask the Taoiseach to give a clear position on them because as matters stand there is an indiscernible gap between the position apparently promoted by the Government and that of Deputy Kenny's party.
Will the Taoiseach give an assurance that the social dimension as it has emerged from the Convention will not be watered down in whatever discussions he has instigated? In terms of the various meetings encompassed by Questions Nos. 3 to 17, inclusive, have recent developments in Iraq and their implications been discussed by Heads of Government or is a view crystallising within the EU as to steps it might take in response to these developments?
I refer to Deputy Ó Caoláin's question. He asked whether I was satisfied with the updating of the Petersberg Tasks provided for in the draft constitution and with the issues relating to qualified majority voting in security and defence. The answer is "yes" because the draft treaty now provides for an updating of the Petersberg Tasks to include areas such as conflict prevention, joint disarmament operations and post conflict stabilisation and this updating is consistent with our approach to European security and defence. It is now written into the constitution. It was not there previously and it is now clearly there that it is on that basis that we will participate in the Petersberg Tasks. That makes life clearer. That is clearly written in as of now, unless it changes, but I hope it does not.
Yes, I will insist that is not changed because the position now is totally satisfactory. It remains the case that Petersberg Tasks operations will be decided in unanimity by the Council so that one cannot be forced into a position in which one does not want to be. Participation by Ireland or other member states in Petersberg Tasks operations is a matter for sovereign national decision. We have ourselves absolutely protected in the debate.
With regard to the Deputy's other question on QMV, we have held our position on taxation. Other countries have made arguments on social security and other issues. I agree QMV should be used as much as possible to make decision making efficient, effective and simple but there are areas in which that cannot be done and, in those cases, one must stick to unanimity.
Taxation, yes, and foreign policy, particularly in regard to common security and defence will be decided by unanimity. We cannot be forced into a position against our will under any of the areas.
Deputy Rabbitte asked two questions. I totally agree with him and colleagues have raised the strengthening of social dimension issues. We will defend the position on social dimension so that there will be no diminution in this area or any change in it.
The Iraq issue comes up in all meetings at every level. All my colleagues hope to see the drafting of a further resolution, which will begin this week, that will allow Kofi Annan's special representative, Mr. Brahimi, to bring in an interim government on 30 June pending elections as early in 2005 as possible. There is doubt about how early. It was to be January 2005 but some people doubt the possibility of doing that.
The major issue is that practically everyone believes a further UN resolution is needed and it must be absolutely clear on how the jurisdiction will operate from 1 July, particularly the control of policing and all interim arrangements. That will be difficult but there is a united position not only within Europe but among some of the large blocs on the Security Council. Premier Wen said it last week and I will hear it from Mr. Putin later this week. They all want a resolution that gives absolute control to the UN so that Mr. Brahimi and his administration will be the driving force on this issue.
If we do not go down that road the difficulties will continue. It will be hard enough to stabilise the process and resolve the associated difficulties even with a UN resolution. If there is to be a new Administration with the vice presidents and an assembly, the combined view is that it will not work unless it is copperfastened by a clear resolution. For the next six weeks the debate will concern that resolution, the drafting of which is to commence this week.