Thursday, 25 May 2006
European Communities (Amendment) Bill 2006: Second Stage (Resumed).
I welcome the opportunity to speak on this debate. Members must consider the issue of the accession of two further countries to the EU, namely, the Republic of Bulgaria and Romania. This will entail the addition of a further 30 million people, which is a considerable number. I understand that Romania has a population of 22.7 million while Bulgaria has a population of approximately 8 million. The two countries are in different states of readiness. Romania has been an applicant for accession to the EU for quite some time and was granted membership to the Council of Europe as long ago as 1993. A subsequent sequence of events started the process.
It is important to note that approximately 95% of Romania's citizens want to join the EU and are active and enthusiastic in this regard. The high level of support for European integration may be explained by the great advantages which EU membership brings. They see how well other member states are doing and the benefits which membership has brought to them.
On its accession, Romania will become the seventh largest state in the EU and will be quite influential. For example, it will have 35 seats in the European Parliament and will undoubtedly wield significant influence in that forum. Another critical issue concerns Romania's strategic geographical location. It will act as a gateway to other countries, such as Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Turkey. It will act as a controlling factor on issues such as visas for those countries.
On 10 May last, this House celebrated Europe Day by discussing European issues at length. It had discussed the question of Romanian and Bulgarian accession to the EU shortly before that. In general, their applications received support from all sides of the House. Although it was originally intended that they would join on 1 January 2007, I am now uncertain whether this will take place in 2007 or 2008. However, serious negotiations began in December 2004.
This debate provides Members with an opportunity to take stock and to review the evolution of the European Union. The concept began in the aftermath of the Second World War. The seeds were sown when people rejected war, having become over-familiar with death, pain and the prospect of sending young people out as cannon fodder. In 1950, the French Foreign Minister decided to co-ordinate the French and German coal and steel industries through the formation of a single supranational authority. At the time, that was a far-thinking measure as in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, people were concerned about their own national identities. The French and German initiative to begin to work together in respect of coal and steel was very important as it laid down a new type of thinking in Europe. Shortly afterwards, in 1952, they joined four other countries, namely, Belgium, Italy, the Netherlands and Luxembourg, to form the European Coal and Steel Community. In 1958 this evolved, with the Treaty of Rome, into the EEC, or the Common Market as it was popularly known for a long time.
Many people ask whether the EU is already sufficiently large. Once one is inside the door, a thinking mechanism emerges to the effect that perhaps enlargement should stop to prevent the EU from becoming too big and unwieldy and that it may be unable to handle further applications.
Thereafter, the EEC worked to converge national economies into a single European economy which was soon to rival the United States as the world's largest trading bloc. While other large trading blocs such as China and India have emerged subsequently, at present Europe is in a position to battle with the best of them. In 1965, the Brussels treaty merged the three existing European organisations into the European Community, which later became the European Union.
From Ireland's perspective, Europe really arrived in 1973, with an expansion which included Ireland, the United Kingdom and Denmark. This was a major step and change for Ireland. Not everyone agreed with the concept and some felt we were selling our national identity or had similar concerns. However, we became part of a wider Europe and we should be proud that as a small nation, we have contributed much to its development. Those who were opposed to entry, if they can remember back that far, might wish to reconsider whether their opposition was misjudged.
In 1981 Greece joined and was followed by Spain and Portugal in 1986. The big issue at the time was the potential effect their accession might have on the labour market, given the cost of living in such countries, and whether we would be fit to absorb them. However, they have been absorbed well and capably as part of Europe.
The Single European Act, which was enacted in 1987, amended the EC treaties to help create a single internal market, which constituted another major step forward. It was followed by the Maastricht Treaty of the European Union in 1992, which provided for a central banking system, commonly known as the European monetary system. That significant milestone was particularly welcomed by business interests. I know that Britain remains outside that monetary system and I imagine that some British business people look with envy at the seamless currency transactions in the rest of Europe. Some day, the British will see the error of their ways. This hang-up pertains to their fear of losing their national identity. However, they will see the wisdom in joining at some point. While their business community already does so, they have a nationalistic instinct not to surrender, at a cost to themselves in currency transactions. With the euro, people in Ireland can directly compare prices and labour costs to those which obtain in other regions. These constitute some of the advantages which we enjoy.
The accession of ten new states in May 2004 was another significant milestone for Europe. People probably became concerned in this regard, although this is true every time the EU opens its doors for expansion. Luckily, however, such concerns have been unfounded thus far. People expressed major concerns regarding the impact of inflows of immigration into our labour market. To date, it has not done us any harm, although this might change in the future.
In 2003, the EU embarked on military missions and EU troops were deployed to Macedonia, Congo and, later, Bosnia. In 2004, it was agreed to admit Bulgaria and Romania, with Croatia to follow. The question of Turkey's admission was deferred and many issues remain to be dealt with in that regard. As I stated, there is a tendency on the part of citizens of countries which have entered the EU to be reluctant to consider further enlargement and to state that it is already big enough.
To move on, both countries must grapple with quite a number of issues before they can be accepted. There are issues in respect of the free movement of people, as well as human trafficking between different countries. There are concerns about Ireland's capacity to continue to grow and to accept immigrants. However, business people state that the demand for labour is such that we will need more than 60,000 people per annum to keep our economy going. If we continue at that rate, the bubble is not likely to burst for a number of years to come. Approximately 135,000 people have come from the ten accession countries since May 2004, which is a considerable number. Some 62,000 are expected to come in the next year. There are differences of opinion as to the percentage that they represent. Some people believe the EU non-Irish nationals account for approximately 2% of the population and non-Irish nationals in total account for approximately 3%. However, some people believe that 8% or 9% of our workforce is made up of non-Irish nationals. It certainly appears that way as I keep meeting quite a few of them. We are still able to cater with these numbers.
Rather than guessing how many people might come from Romania and Bulgaria, we should have a logical method for carrying out research on the matter. I understand that Britain has carried out research into the number of people it expects to come from Bulgaria and Romania. We need a scientific method to analyse the numbers we expect to come. We need to be properly prepared and have the proper information. I believe the recently held census will be very revealing regarding the number of non-Irish nationals living here. We will have that information in the autumn and it will allow us to get our housekeeping together and see what is what. We have had ways of figuring this out. To some extent we are guessing at the number of people that might come. Someone recently referred to a back-of-the-envelope guess at the number of people coming.
The two countries concerned have a number of housekeeping issues to address. They were put on notice some time ago and they know they have many issues to correct before they can be admitted. Money laundering is a major issue and we have seen reference to it in this country recently. It is a major issue in Bulgaria. Fraud, corruption and judicial reform are major issues and can be endemic in a system, making them hard to root out. I would have concern about the political influence certain gangs have in those countries. We have heard that in some countries with corrupt systems they claim ownership of a number of politicians. If they have had access to money for such a period, I am concerned they might have corrupted many people.
We cannot be seen to lower the bar to facilitate the entry of these countries to the EU. Too many issues are at stake and they would need to be seen to have taken sufficient steps to have made a positive impact. The safety of nuclear power plants in Bulgaria could present difficulties. That country needs to take steps to ensure the safe storage of nuclear material. Earlier I referred to human trafficking, which is the most despicable abuse of human rights. There is evidence that human trafficking is a problem and that gangs are involved in this activity in Bulgaria.
Considerable money will be allocated to ensure these countries move in the right direction. In the initial three-year period, approximately €9 billion will be allocated to help make the transition. We might regard all the regions in those countries as being poor. However, the poor regions will get in excess of €8 billion. The farming community will get in excess of €1 billion. Some €350 million will be allocated to address nuclear safety. The translators and administrators will need to get a share of money to help them come up to speed. The farmers in Bulgaria and Romania will get 25% of EU payments in 2007, increasing gradually each year so that the direct payments will reach the same level as the rest of the EU in 2016, one decade after the planned accession of the two countries. While that may seem a long time away, ten years will not be long passing.
The Commission assesses the amount of direct payments to the two countries in the first three years at €1.3 billion, which is a considerable amount. Agriculture will be the main beneficiary. Given the amount involved, it will need to be seen to go into a safe system. There is a major incentive for Romania and Bulgaria to get their houses in order. It is good that they have a keen interest in wanting to join the European Union. I look forward to them being in a fit state to join us in some years' time.
None of the contributors to this debate has argued against the accession of either Romania or Bulgaria to the European Union, nor would they argue against the future accession of other countries on the European Continent to the European Union. However, this debate offers us the opportunity to discuss how the accession process has been handled and how future accessions are likely to be handled. We ought to be more precise about the definitions of the Continent of Europe and the organisation that is the European Union.
This week has seen the birth of a new nation, Montenegro, a country of similar size to Ireland but with a population of only 650,000. There is a possibility of other areas of the Balkan region becoming independent in the future, Kosovo being a case in point. Certain nations are considered regions of larger nation states, such as the Basque country and Catalonia. In our near neighbour, the status of Scotland and Wales may be subject to change in the future. It is not beyond the realms of possibility that the European Union within the course of this century may become an organisation of 50 states, which is before we discuss where we define the borders of Europe.
The most contentious of the future accessions is that of Turkey, which has a small part of its territory in Europe but is largely in Asia. Some tentative inquiries have been made about countries in north Africa because of their former colonial relationship with some of the main members of the European Union. Some countries in Asia Minor and the Middle East, such as Israel and Lebanon, if it becomes more settled, may want to be considered as part of this process.
This is before we consider the part of Europe outside the Balkans that has not even got onto the first step of the ladder, including the former republics of the Soviet Union like Ukraine, Belarus — which would be very low on the list given its situation — and the countries of the Caucasus such as Armenia and Georgia, which have been going through their own trials and tribulations as they try to become more democratic nations. The failure to define the geography of the European Union has led us down a number of blind alleys. The Government of the day needs to be more forceful in asking questions at EU level because there is potential for a large number of countries to become member states. How, when and under what circumstances they become members need to be handled carefully.
It took 17 years for the first countries to accede to the Union after it was established and Ireland was among them. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, a number of accessions took place until the Union numbered 15 members. It was then decided to pursue the big bang approach to accession, resulting in ten countries being admitted under the Irish Presidency two years ago. One wonders whether this was done for proper strategic or structural reasons or whether the motive was more political. Many of the countries had turned to communism following the Second World War and they needed to align with more democratic societies in western Europe. However, it is curious that the first port of call for these countries as they changed politically was NATO rather than the EU. The need for a security-based state was more pressing than the need for a democratic society. Perhaps, given their history, that was understandable.
Given that trend, Ireland should play a more positive role in defining the EU and what it should become. We have been led unnecessarily through a succession of treaties which define the EU as this part of the world's approach to the US. The EU cannot and should not be that. It is a collection of nation states whose citizens identify first with them as they affect their own lives. This important principle gets lost in the wider debate about the Union.
My party has been constantly derided as eurosceptic, but we have constantly argued that is not the case. We have always favoured a different and better Union. The treaties passed since the implementation of the Single European Act in the 1980s have followed a trend towards a monolith, which has positioned the institutions of the Union further away from the people they are meant to represent. Unfortunately, our argument has not been permitted to be heard in Irish political discourse because it is considered to be heresy. It has been to the detriment of our system that we have not had a more wide-ranging debate on the nature of the Union and what it could and should be.
Those who have sought to support the status quo and unquestioningly support the Union and its institutions have done the State and its people a disservice because they have always sought to make arguments about the future in terms of whether one is in or out, but it is not such a black and white scenario. As the Union evolves and history is rewritten and made, people in every member state should be involved. That has not happened, which means unnecessary fears have been created, especially in the oldest member states. It is no accident that the constitutional treaty was rejected emphatically in France and the Netherlands and, sadly, that the rejection was based on people's fears of being exposed to economic and cultural threats from the citizens of other states. It is sad that, 60 years after the Second World War, such fears are being expressed.
Ireland should play a more positive role in this regard. The best way to do that is by having an open debate, asking the necessary questions and putting forward alternative models. The Government has been too acquiescent in accepting a drift towards the monolith approach of the Union. Given that the constitutional treaty is dead and buried and cannot be resuscitated because the French and the Dutch will not vote for it, we must devise a different and better model. In doing so, more countries will accede to the Union, including Bulgaria and Romania who are expected to join next. Both countries should be warmly welcomed, although their economic development must catch up with the European average, but that can be achieved in the short term.
It is also important that we should make our experience known to the countries who joined in 2004 and to those who intend to accede in the coming years. It is not a given that these countries will catch up economically and it will not happen as quickly as people might have been led to believe. During the first 15 years of its membership of the Union, Ireland experienced difficult economic circumstances which resulted in increased inflation and unemployment rates. The advent of the European Single Market resulted in significant benefits for the State as foreign direct investment increased and foreign companies were encouraged to establish businesses here, resulting in increased exports.
Ironically, the enlargement of the Union could be a threat to our economic prosperity, despite how wealth is distributed internally. Foreign direct investment is most likely to be attracted to central Europe, which has a significant population and offers reduced transport costs, as countries in the region offer the same advantages we claim to offer in education and taxation. When the accession of other countries is debated, we should always review our position within the Union and how we will be affected.
The Union is seeking to address concerns about whether Bulgaria and Romania are likely to meet the entry criteria laid down for them by the end of the year. We must reflect on concerns among our citizens about social progress in these countries. With regard to Romania, there are concerns about the treatment of the Roma, the mentally ill and abandoned children. These important issues must be addressed before accession occurs. My concern regarding Bulgaria is that Irish people are taking advantage of the economic circumstances in the country, which could retard its economic development. As I travel around the country, I regularly see signs advertising the sale of property in Bulgaria at various exhibitions. It is a rich irony, given our history that auctioneers are selling the notion of buying up these countries by lot and creating an army of absentee landlords. I had hoped the Government would have offered better moral leadership in this area.
The Taoiseach has boasted that 100,000 Irish people own property in many accession countries.
His tone was boastful. He suggested such property ownership should be a badge of pride. However, the failure to re-invest in Ireland will be to our disadvantage in the long term while we take advantage of countries embarking on their own economic journey.
There is no fundamental disagreement in widening the EU and accepting more members. There are difficulties in figuring out how that can be done via proper governance structures. If 25 or 50 people are around the table, how do we agree on decisions? The fact that all members are there is not a matter for dissension in this House, nor should it be. The problem is about what the EU wants to represent and the degree to which it wants to have the vestiges of a nation state. There are principles of subsidiarity and talk of decentralisation — however debased that has become in Irish politics in recent times — but the reality is that the majority of legal instruments are not produced in this Chamber but in the European Parliament and through the European Commission.
We have already decided that there are areas in which this policy is useful. As a member of the Green Party, I believe that most environmental decisions can only be made at a European level. However, there are other areas in which we must ask questions. There are EU pressures on key elements of economic policy. Many of the larger members of the EU are pushing for the idea of tax harmonisation. The services directive undermines the value of workers in member states, although we wait to see how the European Parliament will deal with it.
In spite of the fact that most of these legal instruments have been decided outside this Chamber, we must acknowledge our failure to question and amend such instruments in the Oireachtas. The sheer scale of the directives, coming from Brussels makes it virtually impossible for any degree of proper scrutiny to occur. The Government needs to use this period of reflection to accept that this scrutiny process must be drastically reformed. The number of instruments that must be introduced and the timeframe involved in scrutinising them must be defined. An opportunity must exist to opt in and out of these instruments if they are not central issues.
The example of the US has often been used in this debate. While it is not directly applicable — I argued earlier that we should not compare the EU to the US — the US federal system allows for a body of laws by the individual states and laws of the nation. We should do something similar for many European laws. There should be a level of legislation which would apply across all member states, another level — like certain directives — which member states could join over a given period, as well as a level of legislation which member states could choose to opt in or out. Unfortunately, such an area has not been properly addressed.
It is apposite that we discuss this Bill today. A delegation from the Bulgarian Parliament is visiting the Oireachtas today. Its representatives will have a meeting with members of the Committee of Public Accounts this afternoon and I welcome them to Dáil Éireann. I hope the experience will have a long-term benefit to our countries. This Bill will not be opposed by the Green Party. We still await clear indications from the European Commission on whether the accession of Bulgaria and Romania will take place in 2007. If there are remaining grey areas, we await an indication of what they are and how they will be addressed. Aside from that, I look forward to both Romania and Bulgaria becoming a part of the European Union.
I welcome the opportunity to make a contribution to this debate. Following the general election in 2002, a Labour Party Private Members' Bill was brought to a Select Committee on European Affairs. I was Chairman of the committee and the then Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Cowen, put it through the committee. This took place before any other committee had been set up and it was very healthy cross-party co-operation. That Bill, when enacted, gave the Oireachtas extensive powers in scrutinising EU legislation in its embryonic stage, through the Joint Committee on European Affairs and the sub-committee on European scrutiny. Within five weeks of the Government receiving a proposal for European legislation, be it a regulation, directive or decision, the sub-committee on European scrutiny must also receive it in a certain format with advice on its importance and significance for Ireland. That was a very significant development.
The Joint Committee on European Affairs has been given other powers by the House under Standing Orders which it used when I was Chairman of the committee. It is very difficult to get coverage because the business of the meeting is serious. In addition to scrutinising draft regulations and directives, the Minister for Foreign Affairs and the Minister of State with responsibility for European Affairs come to the committee to discuss the agenda on the forthcoming General Affairs and External Relations Council. This process has some way to go, but it has been a good development. The sub-committee on EU scrutiny looks at all the regulations and decides which should be scrutinised in greater detail. These are then sent to the relevant Oireachtas committees for further scrutiny. It is then a matter for the elected representatives on those committees to decide what is to be done.
There is one downside to all of this. We discovered that what are known as decisions were being taken by the European Council and these decisions did not come before us for scrutiny. We made it clear that this was unacceptable and we were assured that decisions would come before the sub-committee on EU scrutiny in future. A decision to use Irish taxpayers' funds to experiment on embryos in other member states was taken behind closed doors by the Tánaiste and then Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Harney. We believed it was inappropriate to make such a decision without scrutiny, so we sent the matter to the Joint Committee on Enterprise and Small Business, which has responsibility for scientific research. That committee made a recommendation against the decision but the Tánaiste simply ignored the will of the Houses.
We established these procedures because, if Irish taxpayers' money cannot be used for research on embryos here because of the constitutional protection for the unborn, why should it be used to fund research in other member states? If they want to conduct research, let them use their taxpayers' money. A number of member states have serious concerns about the matter but even though it is now up for reconsideration under the seventh framework programme and despite the recommendation of the joint committee, Ireland has not changed its position. I have urged the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment to reconsider the position because there is otherwise no point in scrutinising matters and making recommendations. Irish taxpayers' money should not be spent on embryonic research in other member states or put into the European research fund if we cannot conduct the same research here. Irrespective of how I or any Minister feels about the matter, the Houses have spoken and that is an important part of the scrutiny process.
As far as I am concerned, as soon as Bulgaria and Romania are admitted to the EU, the better. It is merely a matter for the two countries to be able to take on the acquis and demonstrate they meet the requirements of functioning democracies, which I hope will happen by early next year. The parliaments of Bulgaria and Romania have already sent observer members to the European Parliament.
I do not know what will happen when the former Yugoslav republics apply for membership. Montenegro wants to join the EU on its own, Croatia will join in the not too distant future and Serbia will join when it is able to function as a democracy. We will face significant issues in governing an EU of more than 30 member states, particular in light of the uncertainty around the future of the constitutional treaty. Nonetheless, we must remind ourselves as the Second World War recedes into the past that the central hope of the European Union is peace and stability on the Continent of Europe. Approximately 60 million people died in Europe during the first half of the last century because of a lack of peace and stability. Everything after peace and stability is a bonus and we certainly cannot have prosperity without them. It is better to solve the problem of developing governing structures for 30 and more states than to deal with a panzer division massing on the border. Solutions to the challenges which will undoubtedly arise as the EU enlarges can be found through politics. Clearly, Bulgaria and Romania are on the verge of membership and we should ensure they join as soon as possible.
I want to make my next point as carefully and sensitively as I can. I have never made a racist or intolerant comment or said anything against immigrants, but I think problems are arising in respect of immigration which needs to be addressed more proactively, not only by the Government but also by the community. This lunchtime, I attended a meeting in Ballyfermot, where a project has been established to involve indigenous and immigrant communities in planning for greater integration in the Dublin 10 area. Recently, I spoke in the European Parliament about Pearse Park in Crumlin, Dublin 12, where each year on the first bank holiday of the summer, Crumlin United and another group organise a sports against racism festival. The festival is a fantastic idea which brings together soccer teams from Ireland, Poland, Romania and elsewhere, as well as Gaelic football and hurling teams. By bringing together people from all over the world to compete in sport, exchange food and music and hold a joyful event, sport is used to break down racism and integrate people. Racism often emerges at sporting events, so it is fantastic that Crumlin United and its partners can organise this annual event. These ground level efforts need to be encouraged and supported because they are positive and welcome.
I do not want to score any party political points when I say that we also need action from the top. I am a former Minister of State at the Department of the Taoiseach with special responsibility for European affairs. Like the current Minister of State, Deputy Treacy, my responsibilities included co-ordinating European issues across Departments. I prepared for meetings with the help of officials from the Departments of the Taoiseach and Foreign Affairs, who would signal the difficulties they encountered in various Departments. As a Minister of State at the Department of the Taoiseach, I could threaten people who were dragging their heels with the involvement of the Taoiseach if they did not resolve their problems by our next meeting. The ability of a Minister of State at the Department of the Taoiseach to co-ordinate issues such as European integration and prepare for European Presidencies has proven useful.
The integration of immigrants will become even more important with the accession of Bulgaria and Romania and, unless this is co-ordinated from the top as well as encouraged on the ground, this country will face serious problems. Currently, 80,000 housing units are being built each year, which is approximately equal to the numbers built in the United Kingdom. If we are to be honest with ourselves, we will have to admit that this boom will not continue indefinitely and the best we can hope for is a soft landing. When that happens, fewer workers will be needed in the construction industry and, if these workers cannot find jobs to suit their skills, they will look for scapegoats.
Many of the people who present at my constituency clinic to seek services such as public housing or social welfare benefits accuse immigrants of receiving a disproportionate level of State support. I tell such people, who often confuse immigrants with asylum seekers and make absurd claims, not to turn on other vulnerable groups. I heard a nonsensical anecdote about three immigrants who could not make room for their push-car in a taxi and so decided to leave it behind because they could get another one from the health board. Even though this and similar stories are totally untrue, people tell them without being challenged. I was once threatened with the Equality Authority after an appearance on "Questions and Answers" by somebody who thought I said "old people" are the worst, when I actually used the term "older people". Older people, who one would expect to have a more balanced view of life, are often the ones to make false claims against immigrants.
I say this for the Minister's consideration and for the record. A Minister of State at the Department of the Taoiseach or the Chief Whip, who is also a Cabinet member, should be appointed to co-ordinate immigrant issues across all Departments in the way the Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs with responsibility for European Affairs co-ordinates European issues. I refer not only to asylum and visas but to policies on anti-racism, integration, housing, health, social welfare and public education, and to educating the new ethnic communities in how to integrate, respect each other's tradition and culture and live side by side.
I often use the following words in the debate on Europe. Europe is not about assimilation, where we all have to be the same, Europe is about integration, where Roman Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, Jews, non-believers, French, German and Irish work together, side by side. In debating this issue we must remind ourselves of this. It will mean that people will travel here as part of that integration process and we must ensure that we double our efforts to bring that integration principle home here. The way to do it is to have a Minister to co-ordinate it. We do not need a new Department with a Cabinet Minister because different Departments already do different things.
A Minister of State, the Chief Whip for example, should co-ordinate these issues. There used to be committees such as the Geoghegan-Quinn committee, the Kitt committee and the Mitchell committee, which were presumably named after the incumbent Minister during the last Presidency. We should have committees like those and if an issue arises relating to a particular Department, that Minister would co-ordinate the action taken rather then leave the relevant Minister to deal with it alone. Senior civil servants under the chairmanship of the Minister would co-ordinate the action on the issue. I ask that this idea be examined. For a long time, preceding the last election, I have had a motion on the Order Paper of the Dáil seeking the appointment of such a Minister. It is time somebody proactively took responsibility.
I genuinely fear that simmering beneath the surface there is a serious potential problem with immigrants, and not all of it is caused by the indigenous Irish population. Immigrants often do not know what is expected of them. Sometimes they have ideas about what they should get, and when they do not get it they think it is because they are immigrants. We must nip those problems in the bud.
Immigrants are welcome here. I have nothing to say against them. I welcome the idea of multiculturalism, which has many positive aspects. One result has been the growing love for the Irish language in Dublin where Gaelscoileanna have opened. Parents have voted with their feet because they see other people's cultures and they want to keep their own. In our churches many people practice their religions in a way that would put some of us who call ourselves Christian or Roman Catholic to shame and perhaps they can show us some of the things we are forgetting. With these positive aspects come problems with integration that is not proactively managed. Those problems simmer beneath the surface. They must be planned for and ironed out so that we have a peaceful, stable and welcoming community where cultures live side by side in mutual respect.
I am glad of the opportunity to participate in this debate and we have heightened our interest in the area of European affairs. In my time as Chairman of the Oireachtas Committee on European Affairs I found that the Minister and Ministers of State were always co-operative, as was any Minister we invited to come before the committee. It is also taken seriously by civil servants, which is a good thing.
Gabhaim buíochas leis na Teachtaí uilig a ghlac páirt sa díospóireacht an-tábhachtach seo. I reiterate that the purpose of this Bill is to allow for the completion of the fifth enlargement by providing for the accession of Bulgaria and Romania into the European Union. It was gratifying to encounter such strong support for the accession of both Bulgaria and Romania when the Second Stage debate commenced on 10 May. Fittingly, support for this latest phase of EU enlargement came from all sides of this Chamber and on behalf of the Government I thank the many Deputies who spoke positively in favour of the accession of Bulgaria and Romania into the EU.
This strong backing for Bulgarian and Romanian membership was reinforced last week when the Select Committee on European Affairs discussed a motion to approve the terms of the accession treaty. The motion was passed by this House yesterday. Our ratification legislation must be passed soon, regardless of the date of accession of Bulgaria and Romania. Under the terms of the accession treaty we are required to ratify it before the end of this year. While we hope the earlier accession date of 1 January 2007 will prove possible, we must follow the established procedures, which require the date to be set out following a recommendation from the European Commission.
On 16 May the EU Enlargement Commissioner, Mr. Ollie Rehn, presented the European Commission's comprehensive monitoring reports to the European Parliament. He announced that the Commission's final recommendation on the dates of accession will not be made until this autumn. While the European Commission's report about these two countries' preparedness for membership was less positive than might have been hoped, the delay in confirming the date of accession will maximise the incentive for reform in both countries in the coming months.
Like the European Commission, we have been greatly encouraged by both countries' progress to date and I hope both Bulgaria and Romania can go the extra mile in addressing the remaining issues so that they can join the European Union on 1 January 2007. Both counties will enjoy Ireland's continued support in their efforts to do so and will also have the support of the European Commission as confirmed today at the National Forum on Europe meeting in Dublin Castle by the Secretary General of the European Commission, Ms Catherine Day.
Since this debate opened on 10 May a further three member states have informed the Council of their accession ratification. This means that 17 member states have ratified the accession treaty for Bulgaria and Romania. It will be important for Ireland to keep pace with other member states in ratifying the treaty and I hope this Bill can be passed during this summer session allowing for our formal ratification to be completed in the autumn.
The question of the free movement of workers was raised a number of times during this debate and at the Select Committee on European Affairs last week. Nothing in this Bill relates to the free movement issue, which is a different matter and will be dealt with separately. On 3 May the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Martin, announced that he will propose an amendment to the Employment Permits Bill 2005. This will be an enabling provision to empower the Minister, by regulation, to permit unhindered access or to continue to require Bulgarian and Romanian nationals to have work permits here. This provision will allow the Government to make a decision on labour market access later this year after taking account of all relevant issues, including the prevailing labour market conditions in Ireland and the intentions of other member states. This has been stressed by the Taoiseach on a number of occasions recently.
The EU's continued development is vital to Ireland. The success of enlargement will shape the future of Europe. All enlargements to date have worked well, strengthening the European Union and contributing to its continued development. The 2004 enlargement was the biggest in the EU's history and the new member states are settling in well. The pessimists have been confounded again as the EU is making a success of the most recent enlargement, notwithstanding its unprecedented scale and ambition. Concerns have been expressed around Europe about further enlargement. These are understandable given the rapid changes that have transformed Europe in the past decade and more.
It is important to remember that these great changes have been positive. The healing of Europe's past divisions has helped make the Continent more stable and secure than it was during the Cold War. There are problems that must be dealt with, such as the need to curb the horrendous practice of human trafficking. A Europe united behind shared values and common aspirations is better placed to confront such problems. It would not be possible to confront human trafficking on a single state basis. EU policies, initiatives and a trans-frontier attitude are critical to ensure working together through the Commission and the EU to confront this terrible situation. It is imperative the EU enlargement policy enjoys popular approval. It is important to communicate a positive message about the fifth enlargement and help assuage natural apprehensions.
Deputy Harkin and others referred to questions submitted by members of the public on Europe Day. These questions raised important issues, will shape our approach to enlargement and will be replied to in writing. Deputy Boyle stated the Green Party is not eurosceptic but he derides the EU as a monolithic entity. He is negative towards the EU constitution, the most democratic treaty proposal in history, giving power to the citizens and the people.
Our position on the EU constitution is well known. Now is not the time for institutional wrangling. The constitution is the best achievable deal, a finely balanced package disturbance of which risks destabilisation. Now is not the time to press for progress. In time, circumstances will improve, allowing for ratification by all member states. The Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Dermot Ahern, will meet EU Foreign Minister colleagues in Vienna this weekend to discuss many of the issues raised in this debate.
I look forward to the passage of this Bill and to Ireland's ratification of the accession treaty later in the year. I also look forward to welcoming Bulgaria and Romania as full partners in the EU. Their presence will strengthen the EU in future years.