Thursday, 28 April 2005
Question 8: To ask the Minister for Foreign Affairs if he has held discussions with his counterparts in other countries in which referenda on the EU constitution will take place regarding their approach to informing the public on the content of the document; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [13514/05]
Question 55: To ask the Minister for Foreign Affairs when the proposed amendments to Article 29o of the Constitution to allow the State to ratify the EU constitution will be published; if there will be any provision in the amendment for Ireland to join closer defence co-operation in the EU; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [13675/05]
Question 89: To ask the Minister for Foreign Affairs when his Department will publish the necessary legislation to enable the referendum on the EU constitution to take place; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [13504/05]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 8, 17, 55, 76, 86 and 89 together.
As the House will be aware, the target date for the entry into force of the European constitution, following ratification by all 25 member states in accordance with their own constitutional requirements, is 1 November 2006.
Ratification by Ireland will require a referendum to amend the Irish Constitution. The Government has not yet taken a decision on the timing of the referendum. However, preparatory work on the wording of the necessary amendment is well advanced, including on the question of whether it would include any decision on whether Ireland would participate in permanent structured co-operation in the security and defence area in the list of matters that would require prior approval by both Houses of the Oireachtas. It is the Government's intention to publish the Bill to amend the Constitution shortly. As the Taoiseach, Minister for Foreign Affairs and I have consistently said, we want the fullest possible debate on the European constitution throughout the country.
Publication of the Referendum Bill will allow for establishment of the Referendum Commission. The Government is committed to giving the commission the time and the resources it needs to perform its dual functions of informing the public and encouraging voter turn-out. In addition, the Government intends in June to publish a White Paper on the European constitution, and at a later date will circulate a short information guide to all households. These publications will supplement the explanatory guide issued last October.
However, as we all know, active debate, involving not only politicians but other public figures and interest groups, is the most important means of stimulating public interest and awareness. I welcome the contribution being made by all those participating in the National Forum on Europe and elsewhere, and I encourage all politicians at every level of representation to get involved in the debate now. I also encourage and appeal to the media to accelerate reporting on the EU constitution and to debate on it at every level.
In relation to contact with partners, the Taoiseach, Minister for Foreign Affairs and I regularly discuss the ratification process and public information efforts with our colleagues from other member states, and our embassies also report regularly to us. However, there is no formal co-ordination arrangement. It is for each member state to decide individually, according to its constitutional requirements and political conditions, how best to proceed to ratify the European constitution.
I welcome the Minister of State's information that the legislation will be published shortly. I urge that all Stages of this legislation would pass through this House before the summer recess. I urge also that the referendum be held as early as possible in the autumn in late October or November before the influence of members of the British media when they turn their attention to a referendum post the general election.
How will the Government's plans be influenced by the outcome of the referendum in France? If the outcome is as the polls suggest, will the Government proceed with a referendum in the autumn?
I made it clear at the end of my reply that it is a matter for each member state to take into account its legal and constitutional position and make it own decision. That is what Ireland will do. There are still four weeks remaining before the referendum will be held in France. I am optimistic about the outcome of the referendum, given the central role France has played in the European Union since the days of the European Coal and Steel Community and the European Economic Community. It gave Ireland and others an opportunity to join the Community at an early stage in the development of the Union. The leadership it has given has been central, and it has been a key pillar in the success of the Union over the years. When the French people take into account their history and contribution and the fact that there is a strong bond across the Europe that is critically important for the future of the Union to be effective, efficient and to be managed in a professional way, they may give a resounding result in favour of the constitution. We are optimistic about that. There is still more than a month remaining before the referendum will be held.
The Minister of State has addressed my question in other fora, including at the European Affairs committee. On the question of circulating a copy of the constitution to every household, the current intention appears to be to make the documentation available and if anyone asks for a copy of it, I presume it will be sent to them free of charge. I am aware that the logistics of the document in terms of physical delivery are somewhat intimidatory. I have seen a French copy which is in the form of a magazine. It is similar to a thick version of The Economist magazine, which is much lighter and easier.
Given that many people will attempt to scare the Irish electorate into saying that in protocol X or protocol Y there is this or that reference, and because the document is an integrated holistic one, unlike the Nice treaty which was impenetrable to read because it crisscrossed references to other treaties and one would need the other four treaties to comprehend it, will the Minister of State consider the circulation of a copy of the constitution in a lighter format? For example, if someone says that Irish divorce law could be altered or changed as a result of harmonisation, being able to access the treaty in one's home to have reassurance in these areas where national competences are supreme has a great deal of merit. Whereas my view previously was similar to that of the Minister of State, I am beginning to change my view on the matter.
Irrespective of what happens in any other country, this country should commit itself to the ratification process. To suggest that we would stop our ratification process because of any country, big or small, not ratifying would be to imply that they effectively had a veto over the process. This would be contrary to the spirit of the European project.
I am mindful of what Deputy Quinn has said. While other colleagues spoke about circulating copies of the constitution to households throughout the country, it is a document of 500 pages. We have given much thought to this. We have published some documentation on the website and we will publish more. There is a lo-call facility for the public who can request to have the constitution posted to them. We are considering past referenda where documentation was available and where the requirement from the public was very scant in their desire to procure that documentation. Last Friday evening, at the National Forum on Europe meeting, Proinsias de Rossa MEP presented me with a copy of the French magazine about the constitution, for which I was grateful. I have asked the officials in my Department to consider the feasibility of how we could amend our constitution so that it will be similar to that which was published in France. I await the response on this. We will do our utmost to get the information out to the maximum number of people.
I want to confirm what Deputy Quinn said in regard to divorce laws and so on. The European constitution has no relevance or role in this area; it is a matter for Ireland and our own laws. The only power the European Union has is the power we give it as a sovereign State by way of referendum. These are contained de facto within the constitution.
Given that the Minister of State welcomes discussion and debate on the European constitution, why have the proposed amendments to Article 29 of the Irish Constitution been circulated to the Labour and Fine Gael parties but not to other parties in this House?
We are very anxious to be involved with all the parties in these discussions. During all referenda, we have had discussions with both the Fine Gael and Labour parties as pro-European parties to decide the best consensual way to proceed. It would be an invasion of Government into the Deputy's party's affairs in view of the debate he publicly announced is going on within his party. When he has reached a conclusion, we will have no difficulty holding bilateral meetings with him.
With respect, it would add to our discussion and debate if the Minister of State gave us the document. We have it in our possession but it does not help matters nor inspire confidence when we find that parties are talking to each other but not necessarily to other parties. If the Minister of State wants openness, debate, transparency and so on, will he ensure that any relevant documentation is properly circulated in the future?
I hope the Minister of State is in favour of political inclusion rather than political exclusion. Does he share my concerns that there is currently a lack of interest and understanding among many citizens in regard to the proposed EU constitution? I would like a "Yes" or "No" answer to my next question because I am hearing different messages from different quarters. Will the EU constitution create a federal state? What will happen if the referendum falls in France? Does the Minister of State share the view expressed by the EU Convention President, Valery Giscard d'Estaing, when he presented the final draft of the EU constitution on 30 June 2003? He said that we have sown a seed. Instead of a half-formed Europe, we have a Europe with legal entity, a single currency, common justice and a Europe which is about to have its own defence. Does the Minister of State share these views?
The categoric answer to the Deputy's question on whether the EU constitution will create a federal state is "Absolutely no".
On Deputy Gormley's point, I am amazed that he has documentation such as this so easily available. I thought it was a private document. I am pleased there is collaboration and communication across the membership of the House to ensure there is inclusivity.
In reply to Deputy McGrath, I am committed to inclusivity. As a party and as a Government, we have a personal, political and legal duty to respect the right of every person who is elected at whatever level. Once they get a mandate from the people, they have a right to be consulted and listened to. We felt it would be unfair to invade the privacy of Deputy Gormley's party in the debate it was having. We admire the debate which is taking place in his party.
I pay tribute to Deputy Gormley, Deputy Carey, Proinsias de Rossa, MEP, his excellency, Ambassador Bruton, and all those who represented Ireland at Convention level. They did an outstanding job for this country. Never before in the history of Europe did a small country like Ireland get such an opportunity to fashion the future constitutional requirements of the people of Europe. We held the Presidency of Europe, in which the Taoiseach led the conclusions to that debate professionally, politically and well. It was a great Irish team with outstanding diplomats working hard on a constant collaborative basis to get the best consensus for the future of Europe. Ireland played a major role and it behoves us all to ensure that we convey that message and the facts within the constitution to the people so that a small country which has played such a key role in Europe over the years and has gained so much from it can continue to fashion and lead Europe in the future. We have many friends of like mind in other member states, some of whom joined recently and many of whom have been there from the beginning.