Wednesday, 25 June 2008
European Council: Statements
I attended the meeting of the European Council in Brussels on Thursday and Friday, 19 and 20 June. I was accompanied at the meeting by the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Micheál Martin, and the Minister of State with responsibility for European Union affairs, Deputy Dick Roche. The Council's proceedings were dominated by two issues, namely the Lisbon treaty following the rejection of the proposed constitutional amendment in the referendum here the previous week and the issue of rising food and oil prices.
As one would expect, while much of the discussion and media focus was on the consequences of our referendum result, a number of substantive steps forward were taken in a variety of areas of work. These included measures on Slovakia's accession to the euro zone, the establishment of the European institute of technology in Budapest, progress in the justice and home affairs area, notably on migration and visa issues, and on the issue of food and oil prices which is now top of the EU agenda. On the external relations side, the Council adopted important conclusions following discussion among foreign Ministers, including on the Western Balkans, Zimbabwe, Burma and Sudan.
The Council noted progress on the EU's climate and energy targets by 2020. We face an intense period of work on these important issues over the rest of this year in order for the European Union to continue to lead the international efforts to secure an ambitious, global and comprehensive post-2012 agreement on climate change. The Council also welcomed the progress on the internal energy market.
The Lisbon treaty aside, the other main focus of the Council was the issue of food and oil prices where there were lengthy discussions on both Thursday and Friday. There was a clear sense around the table of the impact this is having on the public and the very wide-ranging effect such price rises are having on the economy as a whole. I spoke about the difficulties people are facing from issues like high food and fuel prices coming on top of higher mortgage payments. I also encouraged the Commission to introduce short-term emergency measures to help the fisheries sector through current difficulties. The whole European economy is affected by the increases in food and oil prices, but they have a particularly large impact on low-income households. This is true of Ireland and our European partners. It is even more true in developing countries where the proportion of total income spent on food and fuel is larger again.
By agreeing to return to this matter in October, the Council ensured that this issue is set to remain on the EU agenda. The Council noted that work would be advanced on various fronts in the next months, including further assessment of the social and environmental consequences of bio-fuels policies, analysis of regulation in the retail sector, closer monitoring of the commodity related financial markets and further work on innovation and development in the areas of agricultural production.
The main focus of the meeting from an Irish perspective was the issue of the Lisbon treaty following the rejection the previous week by the people of a proposal to amend our Constitution to allow the Government ratify the treaty. I am pleased that the Council conclusions reflect the views and concerns I brought to the meeting, including the need to respect fully the Irish "No" vote in the referendum. I made clear in the run up to and during the Council that our ratification procedure and vote would need to be respected, just as we would respect the procedures and decisions of others. The central focus of our efforts over the two days was to try to manage the situation which arises as a result of the referendum outcome. The referendum was an Irish vote, but it has serious implications for all of our European partners.
Over dinner, I gave my European colleagues my initial assessment of what had happened in Ireland and explained that we now need time to analyse the result and its full implications. Only then could we turn to what possible ways forward there might be for Ireland and the Union. What I said to my colleagues at the Council reflected closely the comments I made to this House last Wednesday during our debate on the referendum. At the outset, I laid considerable emphasis on my view that the vote was not in any way a rejection of Europe and the good that it delivers. In addition to the more tangible economic developments which were widely accepted, I stressed the broad recognition in Ireland of the Union's achievements in securing peace, providing economic stability, reinforcing cultural, social and environmental development and promoting European values of democracy, tolerance and equality. I explained that, against that positive background, it is clear that the debate reflected anxieties about potential future developments and the potential future direction of the Union.
I spoke of the different types of issues which arose. I explained that some were sectoral, for example, those giving rise to unease to the farmers or trade unions. I said that some were very much national, for example, the fears held by some people on the issues of common defence. I explained that the sense of loss of influence had been a theme through the campaign and I drew attention to broader issues such as the very significant changes our country has undergone in recent years and the current tougher economic circumstances, including the issue of food and fuel prices which the Council had been discussing at great length.
I said that issues extraneous to the treaty had also played a considerable role. I spoke of the disconnect between the people and the European institutions and how this could mean that to some of our citizens Europe may appear to be a place of treaties and protocols, directives and regulations, instead of something that makes a meaningful and beneficial impact on people's lives. I stressed the importance of us now taking the time to analyse and consult so that we can properly understand the underlying factors that shaped the outcome of the referendum. I made clear our view that it was premature and could be unhelpful to suggest any next steps or timetables at this early juncture.
The Council members listened carefully to my comments. They accepted the outcome of the referendum. They were aware that this is not the first time the EU has found itself in this type of situation. I am sure they were conscious of the fact that such a vote reflects broader concerns over how the Union manages its business and its relationship with the citizens of the member states. They were certainly very concerned at what the outcome means. They highlighted the dilemma of trying to respond to the concerns of the Irish people while still trying to advance a process which they consider to be vital and which has been in preparation for many years.
Many of them were perplexed. Some found it hard to understand how Ireland could reject a treaty which they see as improving the functioning of the Union and redressing perceived difficulties of democratic accountability. On several occasions over the two days, colleagues commented on what they considered to be the prominence of issues in the campaign which are either unaffected by, or well catered for, in the treaty. Many had received briefings, including through their embassies in Dublin throughout the course of the campaign. They were well informed about the views and issues aired during the campaign and the impact they might have had.
Until the referendum vote, the governments of these states were hopeful that the treaty would enter into force next January. They consider this treaty to be vital to the ability of the EU to function in the interests of all their citizens. That view is reflected in the conclusions which recall the purpose of the treaty. Many made it clear that they have no wish to revisit the text of the treaty, which is itself a compromise text which took many years to negotiate. Several sought guidance on the type of timeframe that Ireland would require to analyse and reflect on what had happened. A number raised questions related to next year's European Parliament elections. Questions were also raised regarding arrangements for the Council Presidency and appointment of the next European Commission, where continuation of the current treaty means a reduction in the number of Commissioners next year.
I made it clear that, however frustrating for them, it is simply too early to know how to move forward at this point. I was straightforward and honest and said that I did not have answers at this time. I stressed that the views and concerns expressed in the campaign were varied and complex. There is no quick fix or easy solution at this stage. I underlined that we must not prejudge how this dilemma might be resolved. I stressed that we intended to proceed in very close consultation with our EU partners. Any potential way forward must be acceptable not just to Ireland, but also to every other EU member state. I underlined the need for time to allow us to analyse and consult in order to understand why the people had rejected the proposal. Only then could we even begin to turn our minds to possible ways forward.
Working closely with the incoming Presidency will be central to the consultation with partners. During the meeting, President Sarkozy and I agreed that he would come to Dublin at the start of the French Presidency on 11 July for intensive discussions. I am pleased that, following discussion, the Council accepted that deeper analysis and consultation is needed before any conclusions can be drawn.
As is normal, a copy of the conclusions has been laid in the Library of the Houses of the Oireachtas. It is important that there be no doubt at home or abroad that these conclusions reflect accurately the position as of today. I will paraphrase the key points as follows. The Council noted preparatory work undertaken in line with last December's Council conclusions, noted the outcome of the referendum on the basis of an initial assessment provided by me, agreed more time is necessary to analyse the situation and noted that the Government will actively consult, internally and with the other member states, to suggest a way forward. The Council noted that parliaments in 19 member states have ratified the treaty and that the ratification process continues in other countries, while also noting that the Czech Republic cannot complete its ratification until its constitutional court delivers an opinion. The Council also agreed to my suggestion to revisit the issue in October and underlined the need not to become distracted from the core business of continuing to deliver concrete results in the various policy areas of concern to the citizen.
Following the "No" vote less than two weeks ago, the Government's main task is to manage the situation that arises as a consequence, both domestically and with our partners. There are various elements within that task of which the European Council last week represented one. We will press on with the necessary analysis and reflection so that we can understand in some depth what has happened. The Government agreed yesterday that the Minister for Foreign Affairs would commission survey research to help us with that. Alongside this work, there will be detailed consultation both at home and with our fellow member states.
In the circumstances which it faced, last week's Council demonstrated the strength of Europe's working methods, namely a determination to resolve issues through discussion and debate and, where necessary, to allow time to explore how ways forward acceptable to all might be found. The Council avoided any moves which might have made the situation that Ireland and Europe faces more difficult. I said to the House last Wednesday during our debate that I will devote my energies to this issue. I assure the House today that the Government is fully focused on finding an acceptable and viable way forward for our country.
I would like to share time with Deputies Timmins and Creighton. Before the Heads of Government meeting I briefed the European People's Party. Some 14 Prime Ministers were present at that and many will have received a somewhat similar briefing from the Taoiseach at the meeting and over their working lunch. There is a need for the European Union to reaffirm what the European project and process is about and where we see the Union and its citizens ten, 15 or 20 years down the line. Equally, there is clearly a divide in this country. Those in better off areas gave a stronger "Yes" vote than those in other areas. I hope the Taoiseach sets out the structure as to how he will analyse and assimilate the underlying reasons people took the decision they took in all its forms. The Taoiseach has only 12 weeks in which to do this — July, August and September. The meeting will be in mid-October. That structure needs to be clear, comprehensive and thorough so that there is a clear understanding of the issues.
During the campaign this party always supported the European process and concept. The only contact I had with members of Fianna Fáil were on a couple of occasions at the Forum on Europe or Dublin Castle with Deputy Roche and some brief contact with Deputy Martin, except for the appearance at the National College of Ireland with the three party leaders to show our coherence. This is not the way a campaign such as this should have been planned. I mentioned it to the Taoiseach's predecessor. If there is to be a re-run of this in some format the Taoiseach should not expect a blank cheque of support from this party. We will always support the European process but I would like us to be at least kept informed of the analysis, data and what is happening.
The Government has a problem and a number of options are open. Europe can do nothing about this and leave it be, but that is not an option. The Government can put the same question to the people, and that is not an option. The Government can examine alternatives of which there are a number. I mentioned one earlier during Taoiseach's Questions and the Taoiseach might respond by having the Attorney General send me his considered opinion as legal officer to the State as to which elements of the Lisbon treaty require a constitutional referendum in their own right in this country. A number of complications need to be clarified. It might be helpful in that the Government could not just isolate them but deal with them individually so people in Ireland who have had a range of difficulties, instead of having them all lumped together, would understand exactly where they come from.
The Taoiseach mentioned that he would talk to the EU partners on a very close basis. That is important but he should also take into account the support the Lisbon treaty was given by both the Labour Party and Fine Gael. The "No" vote would have been much higher had that not been the case. The feeling from the European People's Party representatives was that they do not want the momentum of European development to be restricted or stopped. There is clearly a danger that if this runs to the European elections, very aggressive people on the right and left of the political spectrum in other European countries wanting to interfere with this may turn the elections into a referendum on Lisbon. That is a dilemma for the Government. We will wait and see what comes from its analysis in October and what alternatives the Government sees ahead and when. Timelines are very important for all our parties here who will contest local and European elections this time next year.
I welcome the fact that the Taoiseach and Government have decided to commission research on the results. Some of the research I have seen has been contradictory. The Eurobarometer states immigration was an issue of concern to 1% of the people. We need qualitative research as well as quantitative. There is contradictory evidence. The Sunday Business Post said neutrality and tax were of concern to 50% and 60% of the people. They were minor issues. Those issues have always been there. I disagree with the Minister for Foreign Affairs in that those battles have been fought in the past. Individuals who fight those battles now do not really believe in the European project and they use those issues as a front. They may have influenced a certain number of people but they were not the overriding issues.
Earlier the Taoiseach spoke about trying to get out the information on the accuracy or otherwise with which people speak. The national broadcaster has a role to play. It produced a few very effective programmes late in the day. The commentators and people in the national broadcaster must have the information on what is in the treaty. They let some of the issues go unchallenged. Some issues also went unchallenged by politicians on the "Yes" side. The one that really gets to me is the suggestion that we would lose half our voting strength on the European Council. One could equally make the claim that our vote would double. However that went unchallenged by politicians and commentators.
The National Forum on Europe and the Referendum Commission can be two easy targets, particularly from the "Yes" side. We need to examine how this House tied the hands of the Referendum Commission due to the shortage of time. I hope the environment committee invites it in to see where it saw the shortfalls in the legislation under which it operates. The timeframe for the Referendum Commission to try to get established, familiarise itself with the information and disseminate it was very restrictive. The Forum on Europe is another easy target. The Forum on Europe produced the best information on the Lisbon treaty in an excellent, impartial booklet. It did tremendous work.
A number of years ago the Forum on Europe identified two sectors of the electorate, namely women and young people. Both groups played a key part in this referendum. The research will show that many young people voted who had never voted in elections before, despite having the opportunity, and most of them voted "No". They were very motivated in voting. We on the "Yes" side cannot assume people will vote "Yes" if the issue is rerun. We must be very careful how this is approached and what the way forward is. While it is a European problem, the response must come internally. The solution cannot be imposed on Ireland from outside and I caution the Taoiseach to be wary of that. Many of the measures due to come in under the Lisbon treaty do not come in until 2014, so there is no rush in finding a solution and that message should be brought back to the Taoiseach's European colleagues.
Others issues arose, including food and oil. Some member states introduced short-term measures to deal with the difficulties for low income households with regard to food prices. I do not know if this is applicable in Ireland or if the Government has plans to bring in measures to deal with it. I ask the Minister to consider the emphasis on the production of biofuels and the impact this is having on the price of food, which is an issue for the EU at large. While it is only one of the factors that has increased the price of food, we need to examine the implications of this policy across Europe.
We provide in the region of €200 million to the World Food Programme. The increased price of oil this year alone will bring an extra $400 billion to Saudi Arabia. I note it has given $500 million to the World Food Programme but perhaps we should consider how we might reallocate money within our own aid budget because the food programme is very beneficial.
On Kosovo and EULEX, there seems to be some uncertainty as to the status of the force and how it will move forward, an issue I will raise with the Minister on Question Time. The only way we can guarantee or assist stability in the Balkans is by having all those countries within the EU.
The Minister made brief reference to Zimbabwe. Is there anything we can do here or in Europe in this regard? It strikes me that when the real crunch comes, the only ones who can do anything are the Americans. When we in Europe try to get a common defence policy to develop our resources so we could do the many things that would assist, and which the international community cries out for, the very people who cry out for intervention are the ones who complain about measures that are taken to ensure we have the facilities and wherewithal to do it. I find it an unusual contradiction.
I was interested to hear the Taoiseach's comments on his after-dinner speech at the European Council, where he pointed to the institutional disconnect from the citizens of Europe. I note he made no reference whatsoever to any of the domestic issues that were at play in regard to the Lisbon treaty referendum, primarily the lack of trust in politicians in this country as a direct result of the tribunals which have dominated the political scene for the past 11 years. We need to acknowledge this and face up to it. The second issue is immigration, which is becoming an increasingly bigger issue and clearly led to a socioeconomic divide in how people voted in the referendum. Those two issues need to be dealt with.
There is no doubt we have now reached institutional deadlock. While Ireland may be satisfied with that, it is clear the other EU member states are not. That is not in any way disrespectful of the Irish "No" vote but it is an expression of a desire to proceed with further integration at EU level. In conscience, as a country, a society and an EU member state, we cannot afford to try to block that. We need to come up with a solution very quickly.
I appeal to the Taoiseach to make it eminently clear to Sinn Féin and their cheerleaders that there is no prospect of a full renegotiation of a new treaty in the context of solving this issue. They are posturing in Ireland and around Europe. I note Sinn Féin's one MEP, being so critical of a lack of democracy at EU level, ironically was not in Strasbourg for the plenary session last week but was following cameras and radio microphones around the European Council in Brussels, which is telling enough in itself. I ask the Taoiseach to make it abundantly clear that while Sinn Féin might, in whatever cloud cuckoo land they live, believe a full renegotiation is available to this country, that is not a reality and simply not possible.
What can we do? I have been slightly disappointed with the Taoiseach's response. I have not seen a huge amount of decisiveness or enthusiasm to reach some form of solution to this problem. In fact, in some ways the Taoiseach has been kicking to touch. To be fair, the Taoiseach is going back to the European Council in October but I hope he will have concrete proposals on the table.
Significant changes are necessary to entice the people to support whatever proposal will go before them. There will have to be significant and real changes that will appeal to the people and deal with some of the concerns that have been raised. Obviously, the ones that have been floated and on which there is certainly room to manoeuvre are the issues of the Commissioner and some form of declaration or protocol on neutrality and particularly on the social and moral issues.
The social and moral issues are significant. A significant proportion of the population have fears about the Charter of Fundamental Rights and the potential powers of the European Court of Justice in the future. In a very short period, the Taoiseach could bring legal expertise together to put forward a Government position or a response to those fears in regard not just to abortion but to euthanasia, stem cell research and all the moral issues about which Irish people feel strongly in terms of having our autonomy in decision-making. Those fears were not allayed throughout the course of the last referendum campaign. If they are not addressed in the immediate future, the same factors will come into play in terms of how people vote on any future proposal.
I will make two points in conclusion. First, if the Government goes back to the people with a very similar proposal without significant deals or concessions from other EU member states, I have no doubt that people who voted "Yes" in the last referendum will vote "No" the next time. Quite conceivably, the "No" vote could be an even larger proportion on the next occasion unless the Government is careful and sends out a very clear message. That is what needs to be done over the course of the next four to six weeks.
Second, there is a momentum in regard to the European debate surrounding integration and institutional reform. If the ball is dropped in the autumn and the Taoiseach starts talking about a referendum some time next year, it will be divisive. The momentum is there now and the Taoiseach should build on it. He should be decisive, show leadership, bring concrete proposals to the table, both domestically and at the next European Council, and proceed very quickly at that point.
No one in this House would envy the position the Taoiseach found himself in last week at his first European Council meeting in Brussels. The result of the referendum on the Lisbon treaty presents enormous difficulties for the Government and for the country.
As I have said consistently since the first results of the referendum became known, the people have spoken, and the result of the referendum must be fully respected. At the same time, as a result of that vote Ireland is confronted by our greatest diplomatic challenge since the Second World War. Since that time, Ireland has faced challenges on the international stage but none which had the potential to so profoundly affect our vital national interests. The gains of 50 years of patient diplomacy, which has sought to put Ireland at the heart of the European project, are now at stake.
It was as far back as 1958 that Ireland began to base its economic policy on free trade with our European partners and it was in 1961 that our first application for membership of the European Community was made. That policy is now in question. How we now resolve the problems thrown up by the result of the referendum will determine what it means to be Irish in Europe, perhaps for a generation.
Let us be clear, however, about one thing. This is not just an Irish problem. It is also a European problem. Ireland is the only country to hold a popular vote on the Lisbon treaty. The people have spoken and their voice must be respected. It would be entirely wrong, inappropriate and counterproductive for the European Union to proceed on the basis of any settlement that does not fully respect the voice of the Irish people.
The European Union is, after all, a community of member states founded on the principles of democracy, and it would cause itself untold damage if it were to attempt in some way to sidestep the verdict of the Irish people. That is particularly true since Ireland is one of the smaller member states of the Union. Again, the institutional settlement reached in Lisbon would be deeply undermined if the wishes of a small member state were not to be treated in the same way as those of a large member state.
Solidarity is, of course, a two-way street. There is also an onus on us to find a way forward. The European Union has important work to do. The issues addressed in the Lisbon treaty, such as dealing with climate change, are pressing. There is an urgent need for the Union to end years of institutional navel-gazing and get on with delivery.
I believe the heads of State understand that this is not just an Irish problem. At our meeting in advance of the summit I pointed out to my colleagues in the party of European Socialists that while Ireland is the only country to have a vote on Lisbon, there are many other member states where the majority in parliament for ratification would not be reflected in a popular vote. The irony is that the Lisbon treaty contains significant steps forward in addressing this democratic deficit.
In this context, the Taoiseach was correct in his statement to the Council meeting last week to emphasise the importance of respecting the outcome of the referendum and to look for time to assess the result and its implications. This matter will not be resolved by any rush to judgment and the imposition of arbitrary deadlines is certainly not helpful at this stage. We need to establish a process whereby we can begin to find a way forward, both to strengthen our negotiating position and to limit the damage to Irish diplomacy in other areas. For as long as we are saying to our colleagues in Europe that we do not know and we do not know when we will know, we are not strengthening our position. It is time to shake off the shellshock and get back into the game. We do not need all the answers now, but we need an open and transparent process for finding them.
I emphasise again that this is not just an Irish problem. The work must progress at home and abroad. We must seek to ascertain fully why it was that the Irish people rejected the treaty and we must also engage with our European partners on what options are available. There seems to be an assumption that has grown that Ireland will automatically move to a second referendum. I have made no such assumption. The people have spoken and there can be no question of putting the same package in front of them as before, with a request that they might think better of it a second time. That simply will not fly, nor should it.
We must assess where we are at. As the Taoiseach said earlier, the Lisbon treaty cannot now be ratified. Its ratification cannot be completed and it cannot come into effect as a result of the decision in the Irish referendum. That is a fact. We clearly do not want a situation where a two-speed Europe develops. That is clearly not in our national interest. At the same time, it is pretty clear from the summit meeting which the Taoiseach attended — this view was reflected in the meeting I attended — that there is no mood for a renegotiation of the Lisbon treaty. Indeed, even if there were to be a renegotiation, what would be renegotiated?
I listened to Deputy Creighton and the point she made about, for example, concerns regarding the Charter of Fundamental Rights. I heard such concerns being reflected in some of the commentary made after the Lisbon agreement. I assure the House that if there were to be a renegotiation of the treaty and a watering down of the charter, there would be a problem with us. We believe in the Charter of Fundamental Rights and also believe it is an enormous loss to people in this country that the charter will not now be enshrined in the European treaties and given protection in European law. If people have it in their minds that there will be a renegotiation or a request for opt outs, I assure them that if anybody tries to opt out of the Charter of Fundamental Rights, they will be dealing with us. There were provisions in the charter which were good for workers and citizens that will not now be enshrined in the European treaties. If anybody tries to wriggle away from them, as a convenient means of arriving at a second referendum, my party will resist that tooth and nail.
The reality which we must face up to is that the governance of the European Union for the foreseeable future will not be based on the Lisbon treaty but on the Nice treaty. We must address the issue of how that will be squared with the immediate requirements that are coming down the track. Some of the more immediate issues are, for example, the European Parliament elections next year and how they will be conducted and the composition of the European Commission. The Lisbon treaty would have deferred a decision on the latter until 2014 but ironically, the retention of the Nice treaty brings that date forward to 2009. There is a requirement under the Nice treaty that the Commission be reduced and we must determine how that is to be squared. No matter which way one looks at this — even those who are hoping for a renegotiation must admit — continuing on the basis of Nice is inevitable. We are talking about renegotiating not with one entity but with 26 other member states, which will take time, even if it were to happen. Therefore, in the short term, we must constructively address the issue of how the European Union continues on the basis of the Nice arrangements. Otherwise, we are de facto accepting either that there will be a two-speed Europe or another referendum and frankly, if we did have a second referendum, I do not believe the outcome would be any different. In that context, I share Deputy Creighton's view as to where we might end up in terms of overall vote.
I understand the Taoiseach intends to report back to the summit in October. I hope that in the meantime Irish diplomacy will be reaching out on a bilateral basis to our partners across the community to explore options and look for possible solutions. Apart from anything else, the prospect of non-ratification by one or two other countries has to be factored in. I do not say that in the hope that with a single bound, Ireland might be free. The underlying requirements that gave rise to the treaty would not disappear but the political and diplomatic scenario would certainly change.
As well as engaging with our partners, there must be an engagement with the Irish people. In his speech to the Council, the Taoiseach outlined a number of issues that arose during the campaign and which may have influenced people to vote "No". As he pointed out, some of these were contradictory and many were not borne out by the content of the treaty. However, it is a mistake to equate what may or may not have been in the minds of voters with the arguments that were advanced by the "No" campaign. I do not accept the "No" vote was simply a reflection back of the arguments advanced by the "No" campaign.
A number of opinion polls have been taken which will merit careful scrutiny over the coming weeks and there is a requirement for further analysis of public attitudes. There are a number of points that can be made now. The treaty itself was not easy to communicate. It was not based on a single big idea but on a series of reforms. In that context, it certainly was not helpful that senior politicians claimed not to have read the treaty and that some were dismissive of the notion that they might do so.
One of the reasons being advanced for the "No" vote was that many people did not understand the treaty. That was not the biggest problem. The biggest problem was that many of those arguing for a "Yes" vote did not understand the treaty and it showed. This was further confirmed by those who said they had not read it.
The polls point out that the vast majority of Irish people, whether they voted "Yes" or "No", are supportive of the European Union and Ireland's ongoing membership of it. That is heartening and reflective of a deep-rooted sentiment among the Irish people. Respecting the outcome of the referendum means we in this House must listen to the people but we must also offer leadership. We cannot afford to — and must not — accept the facile interpretation offered by some, including some in the international media, that the Irish are the spoiled children of Europe; that having gained so much from EU membership, we took fright and ran when the European gravy train ran dry. I do not accept that interpretation. I firmly believe the Irish people see themselves as pro-European and that they want Ireland to be at the centre of the European project, shaping Europe's future. Irish people are willing participants in a European Union that is founded on democracy, equality and solidarity among nations and that has a strong social and environmental, as well as economic dimension.
The challenge for us as political leaders is to give a voice to that ambition at home and abroad. It is to articulate for our European partners that there are genuinely-held concerns about some aspects of the European project and that those concerns are not the exclusive preserve of the Irish but are widely shared in other member states. The EU needs to address those concerns, not just to solve the immediate crisis, but in the longer-terms interests of its legitimacy among the peoples of Europe
This problem goes well beyond what one or other campaigner has said about the treaty. This problem arises because a proud and confident people, who are committed to being full participants in the European Union, judged it right to reject the Treaty of Lisbon. That is not an Irish problem, it is a European problem, but it falls to the Irish to lead the way in resolving it.
The referendum was two weeks ago. It is over and we have a decision. It is time to stop re-running the argument. Let us stop talking about the "Yes" side and the "No" side. There can now be only one side and that is Ireland's side. In that context, it is not sufficient for anybody to simply say this is a problem for the Government. Everybody, especially those who argued for the "No" vote, has a responsibility to find a solution, not just in terms of setting down demands but also of delivering support for whatever the perceived solution is and support for that which is beyond these shores. All of us through our respective linkages with other parties and our political groupings in Europe have a responsibility to help resolve this difficulty. Certainly, the Labour Party will play its part in doing that.
I listened to what the Taoiseach had to say during Question Time about the disconnect between the European institutions and the people. This is the chickens coming home to roost because if one looks back over the period of time during which we have been a member of the EU, one can see that the way in which Government has engaged with the EU and has then communicated the result of that engagement to the public has been very possessory. There has not been a great deal of access for the wider public or body politic to Europe. It has always been mediated. The Government negotiates with Europe, delivers a deal and then claims the credit for it. One sees this in all the key negotiations — agriculture, fisheries and trade. We negotiate with Europe and the Government delivers the bacon.
I recall that the systems that were put in place here for the monitoring and management of the delivery of Structural Funds were all centred around central Government and were all based on the premise that the announcements would be made by Ministers and that it would be centralised. There was no sense out there that this was assistance coming from the EU. It was always presented as a great achievement by the Government and Ministers.
A sense was never communicated that the money of European taxpayers which was being spent in this country to develop our infrastructure and economy was based on a wider belief in Europe that lifting all of the economies of Europe and living standards throughout Europe, including those in this country, would benefit Europe as a whole. To some extent, the chickens have come home to roost in that respect.
Táim buíoch deis labhartha a bheith agam ar an méid a tharla ag Comhairle na hEorpa an tseachtain seo caite. Chuaigh an Taoiseach go dtí an cruinniú sin chun toradh vótála na hÉireann, i gcoinne chonradh Liospóin, a phlé. Nuair a labhair sé ag an gcruinniú sin, dúirt sé:
For all of us, the will of the people is sovereign. They have spoken at the ballot box, the ultimate democratic forum, and the Government accepts their verdict.
The Taoiseach has talked the talk of democracy but has failed to walk the walk because he has not accepted the Irish people's verdict on Lisbon and has not ensured that his Council counterparts have accepted it. If he had heard the people, his message to the Council would have been very clear. The Lisbon treaty is finished and ratification of it must end. This was the Taoiseach's job last week.
It is a falsity to suggest that to continue this process is to uphold consensus. It is, as the Taoiseach well knows, the very opposite. Despite having been given a very clear mandate from the Irish electorate, he attended his first Council meeting as Taoiseach of this country not as a leader of a democratic people but as an apologist to the European elites. His speech was peppered with reassurances that the Irish people remain committed to their European identity and the Union, which they do. However, uttering these reasonable words, the Taoiseach sought to distract and deceive the Irish people and European commentators from his actual intent, which is to ignore the unambiguous mandate given to him by the people of this State. His meeting with the Council was as dishonest as the Lisbon treaty itself.
In 2005, the French and the Dutch people rejected the EU constitution. It is worth remembering that a lengthy national debate on the constitution took place in both countries. In France, one in ten people read the document cover to cover, something the Taoiseach failed to get around to doing. Perhaps he might read it again during the summer months.
If he negotiated it, he did not read it. The fact that he negotiated a document which he did not even read is scandalous and an even bigger indictment of him. It is all coming out clearly now. Massive public meetings were held in France with thousands of people in attendance. Following the French and Dutch rejection of the constitution, recriminations were rife. A two-speed Europe was threatened and voters from both states were castigated. Despite this, the French called a halt to the ratification process and a much touted period of reflection was supposed to begin.
The fact is that a period of reflection did not take place. Cosmetic engagements between the EU institutions and civic society took place while EU leaders and faceless bureaucrats began a deeply dishonest process of stripping out all constitutional reference within the text and then produced the Lisbon treaty. Understanding the massive opposition throughout Europe to what this treaty sought to achieve, EU leaders concocted a way of avoiding putting this maligned document to the public in plebiscites.
By the time the Lisbon treaty was signed off on by European leaders and at the end of last year, the substance of the EU constitution remained intact, something which the previous Taoiseach admitted in this House, while democracy and consent did not. Thankfully, in Ireland, we have a voice thanks to one brave individual, Raymond Crotty, who took on the political establishment that would prefer us to be quiet and do as we are told regardless of the cost to Europe, Ireland and the wider world. He forced successive Governments to put treaty changes to the people in referenda for which I congratulate him. It is a pity he is not with us today to stand over and see his achievement.
It is 2005 all over again with EU leaders reacting with angry surprise because the people have spoken and dared to have a different vision for Europe than that of the Union's political leadership. Last Thursday's Council meeting hailed the loudest contradiction to date. The best example came from Angela Merkel who was clad in her solitary green jacket but was firm in her resolve that the treaty must go on. Reassurances that the Irish vote would be respected were qualified with threats of Irish isolation, a two-speed Europe and legal manoeuvres to allow the treaty to be implemented without Ireland's consent. This and the words last week are a reflection of the respect some EU leaders have for the rules of the EU as a whole.
The Taoiseach made his whimpering excuses on behalf of the Irish people, got shoved out to the edge of the class for the group photograph and slunk back home to continue his barrage of insults against over 53% of the electorate who voted against the treaty whom his party has now likened to the reprehensible Jean-Marie Le Pen.
What the Taoiseach should have done last Thursday——
He is not my ally. What the Taoiseach should have done last Thursday was acknowledge that the people he was put here to serve have given him a clear mandate with regard to the fate of the Lisbon treaty. We have also given him a comprehensive list of achievable deliverables that can be put in place in the treaty. These deliverables clearly reflected our commitment to and support for the Union despite the Taoiseach's attempt to brand us otherwise.
This debate, as the Taoiseach well knows, was never about whether Ireland is in or out of Europe. All sections of the debate agreed that Ireland's place in Europe but we in the "No" campaign believed that a better deal was possible. I still believe a better deal is possible. We articulated clearly the type of Europe we wish to shape. We are ambitious for the Union and believe its social model should be based on peace, democracy, equality and prosperity. We take those values seriously.
Sinn Féin's campaign against the treaty focused on four central areas of concern, namely, democracy, neutrality, workers' rights and public services. Workers and voters shared our concerns, as evidenced at public meetings and in national and regional letters' sections of the newspapers and radio debates for months prior to the referendum. We also outlined our concerns with respect to other issues such as trade, the developing world and the European atomic energy treaty. The people listened and voted accordingly.
Last Wednesday, my party presented the Taoiseach's office with a detailed submission on what a new treaty should contain if the concerns of the Irish, French, Dutch and many millions of people throughout Europe are to be addressed. It is time he stopped putting up obstacles to this discussion and took the solution-based approach. The people have spoken and the Lisbon treaty is over. The Taoiseach can still demand of EU leaders that the ratification process end and a new deal be negotiated. It is false to argue that the Lisbon treaty was plan B. It was not and was never intended to be. It was plan A with a new cover.
Sinn Féin's submission contains the detail of a better deal. It represents short-term strategic reforms which we believe are reasonable, practical and deliverable in the context of any upcoming new deal negotiations, but they are the minimum required in any treaty. We must have a new deal. The electorate will not accept a rerun of Lisbon. The Taoiseach knows that, I know it and every dog in the street knows it. Europe will not, and cannot, forge ahead at different speeds. It was not built that way and will collapse if it attempts to do so. To introduce a two-speed Europe would begin the process of unravelling the thread of the Union itself. Rather than deepen the democratic deficit, the Taoiseach should be seeking to close the gap between the citizens of member states and the EU institutions.
I agree there is a need for future treaties, but they must be written in clear and accessible language. There is also a need to provide all members of the public with treaty documents that clearly mark proposed changes under consideration. These must be accompanied by explanatory notes outlining in plain language the implications of such changes. These notes must also be independent and descriptive, not interpretative. Such information should be provided by either the Government or the relevant EU institution, at least six months before any future referendum so we as a society can have a full debate on the implications of all of the proposed changes to our current position within the European Union.
These measures would go a significant way towards addressing the information deficit on Europe highlighted by the electorate during the campaign. It is not good enough for elected representatives to assume the public are not interested. The huge turnout for the recent referendum showed they are interested. They have a voice and want to be heard. The continuing debate throughout Ireland and all member states suggests they are interested and have the future of Europe at heart. The dissemination of information throughout society on issues of such national importance must be taken seriously by the Government. The Taoiseach and his Government must make a real commitment to addressing this gaping hole in his relationship with the people.
The electorate and campaigners also raised further specific concerns that could easily be addressed in a new treaty. A permanent Commissioner for all member states must be retained. Arguments made in this Chamber against such a proposition have not stood up to scrutiny. We can keep the Nice treaty composition of the Commission, with a number of changes to improve its democratic accountability. Sinn Féin has proposed maintaining the Nice treaty QMV formula.
We do not see the need or do not want to see the re-emergence of the self-amending or Passerelle articles in any future treaty. These articles would allow the Council, acting by unanimity, to shift decisions from unanimity to QMV and to expand the existing competences of the European Union and alter the internal procedural working of the EU institutions without reference to the people.
Article 46A, which gives the European Union a single legal personality, must also be dropped. We want to see member state parliaments given greater scope for intervention in the EU legislative programme, the lowering of thresholds for the application of the yellow and orange card system proposed in the Lisbon treaty, the removal of the requirement for support from the European Council or Parliament to block a proposal, to legally oblige the Commission to respond to any yellow or orange card, and to give groups of member states opportunities to propose amendments to proposals on the basis of non-compliance with the aims and values of the European Union. Such changes would account for more than mere window dressing. They would deliver truly democratic EU decision making structures between member states and the EU Parliament.
Ireland, with its unique military neutral status, should seek significant amendments to the section of the Lisbon treaty dealing with common defence and security policy. Sinn Féin has proposed introducing unanimity into all aspects of common defence and security policy to explicitly recognise neutral and non-aligned states and give them the same status that was being accorded to NATO members in the Lisbon treaty. Sinn Féin has proposed the removal of the NATO compatibility requirement from the framing of common defence and security policy. We also propose including a detailed protocol explicitly protecting Irish neutrality, while maintaining the ability of the State to participate in UN-authorised peace keeping and civil and military responses to humanitarian and natural disasters.
The wording and application of any future social clause must be strengthened, specifically compelling the Commission to produce a social and equality impact assessment of all legislative proposals. The protection of public services must also be addressed. The existing protocol on services of general interest must be substantially reworded, making it a protocol on vital public services. This would allow member states to define which services should be defined as vital public services and protect such services from the application of EU rules on competition and State aid.
These are some examples of what Sinn Féin recommends. The Taoiseach and Minister have been given our document and, hopefully, will use it to address the concerns of the Irish electorate when a new treaty is being negotiated over the next number of years.
In view of all that has been said, are any changes anticipated in the context of a means of approval of what is contained in the Lisbon reform treaty for the future? For example, how does the Minister propose to combat the existence of posters of a threatening nature, such those that suggested "Vote No or you will pay" or "People have given their lives for your freedom, don't throw it away"? Other posters had pictures of three monkeys and suggested people were being kept silent, would not be listened to and were, effectively, monkeys. How does the Minister propose to deal with this issue?
How too does he propose to deal with a situation whereby anybody purporting to speak in favour of a "Yes" vote through the media generally, is automatically required to have a person supporting a "No" vote given an equal proportion of time and space? How is it envisaged one can ever win an argument while that remains the case?
The volume, quality and nature of posters is a matter outside my remit and is perhaps a matter for the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. The debate was marked and characterised by posters with excessive hype, exaggeration and hyperbole. They were clearly wrong and appealed to people's emotions. The degree of their impact is open to question. I am also conscious of leaflets funded from overseas. The United Kingdom Independence Party financed a leaflet that had everything but the words "Vote No" on it. Perhaps because of this, it may have passed some rule which facilitated funding. These issues should be examined because the leaflet threatened the confiscation of people's salary if they voted "Yes".
People circumvented the regulations to use the resources and funding to propagate what were, in essence, very misleading assertions and allegations about the content of the treaty.
The Deputy raises an interesting point about how the debate unfolded in the broadcast media. It is a matter on which we could all reflect. Those on the "Yes" side cannot complain about the rules of the game afterwards. The rules are there for everyone to play by and, during the campaign, when the "No" side did not like adjudications by the Referendum Commission, it sought to shoot the messenger.
Maybe they were panicking too early but people from the "No" campaign went after the Referendum Commission because of its clarification on issues such as abortion, neutrality and the free trade agreement. As soon as it did so, people questioned its right to do so. I do not want to be in that position now.
One of the best programmes on the treaty was the "Prime Time" programme of two weeks ago. It analysed the treaty and the arguments for and against and made an objective appraisal of the treaty's relevance to each issue. It covered taxation and abortion. Then it had a debate between two people for and two people against. For the person listening or watching, the other programmes gave five minutes to the "Yes" side and five minutes to the "No" side, with one side saying it was black, the other saying it was white. In that case one can argue that it depends on the prowess and communication ability of the proponents and antagonists but the person listening was more puzzled afterwards. That is why we are engaging in a research project on the campaign and on why people were uncomfortable with the treaty and voted "No" and "Yes". It will also consider the underlying attitudes to the EU.
I was taken by Deputy Ó Snodaigh's remarks. He almost criticised the Taoiseach for saying that the overwhelming majority of Irish people are for the Union, describing this as "weasel words". I heard Mary Lou McDonald on television, at pains to point out that Sinn Féin was pro-Union, in line with the majority of the Irish people. The gurus behind the Sinn Féin operation presented Mary Lou McDonald as the MEP with a particular message targeted and designed to be attractive to the middle ground watching the "Six One News". When the veneer is taken away, Deputy Ó Snodaigh shows a deep-seated hostility to the European project, as evidenced by the tone and tenor of his remarks this morning. There are lessons to be learned and we are open to learning them.
I ask that the research that will be conducted will be framed not just in terms of why people voted "No" but what they would vote for. We must examine what we are for. People say we are for remaining in the EU and for the European project but what does that mean in practice?
It is fine if people say what should happen in the post-referendum situation. There must be a focus on delivery. Those who campaigned on the referendum have a responsibility not just to produce a list for the Government to negotiate. They should say that they can deliver parties across the EU, or ideally governments across the EU, in support of the new position.
The treaty cannot be ratified, which is clear. We should not go down the road of a second referendum, for the reasons I mentioned earlier. The renegotiation will take time. The reality is that we are stuck with Nice. We must turn our minds to how the continuing operation of the EU can be squared with Nice. The working assumption must be developing our proposals based on Nice rather than developing on the assumption that Lisbon will happen.
The point about research is covered. We want the research to embrace the attitudes to the EU, not just the general attitude but how people see Ireland's role in the Union into the future. We took at face value the protestations of those who advocated "No" to Lisbon that they were for the EU and for Ireland being at the heart of the EU. Those who advocated "No" said this repeatedly and with great intensity.
I take the point made by Deputy Gilmore. If that is the case, there is a responsibility on such groups not just to present a document, to wish us the best of luck negotiating it and to retain a reserve position to oppose it if 80% of the document is not achieved but rather to use their influence to keep Ireland at the heart of the Union. That is the objective of the Government.
At the beginning of the week I said that it was far too premature to talk about options for referendums. We must undertake proper analysis and engage with our European colleagues to see what we can do to keep Ireland at the heart of the EU. If everyone in the House is agreed on this, we must put our thinking caps on and engage with those over whom they have influence. We can provide people with analysis of the parliamentary debates in European states. In France the communists said "Bravo Irlande". In Britain there was the United Kingdom Independence Party, in France there was Jean-Marie Le Pen and all over Europe, those on the far right and far left were overjoyed at the Irish rejection of the Lisbon treaty. I accept there were people in between but it is revealing to see the political background of those who are exulting the most because Ireland voted "No". There is a responsibility on everyone to ensure Ireland can stay at the heart of the Union.
Deputy Gilmore raises an interesting point that the bottom line is that the Nice treaty is pressing. This was clarified at the GAERC meeting. People talk about the urgent need to retain a Commissioner. If the Lisbon treaty had been ratified we would have a full Commissioner up to 2014. The Nice treaty which is in operation at present, provides for a reduction in the Commission once the Union has 27 member states, which it now has. It stipulates that the reduced number will be introduced on the basis of strict equal rotation between member states to come into effect on 1 November 2009. This is exercising our minds and those of our European colleagues. It is a real and immediate issue. We face the immediate prospect of losing a Commissioner in November 2009 as opposed to from 2014 onwards under the Lisbon treaty.
We are not affected in terms of the European Parliament because we were to be allocated 12 seats under the Lisbon treaty and the Nice treaty provided for Ireland to have 12 seats from 2009. We have 13 at present because a temporary increase was permitted when Bulgaria and Romania joined the European Union. In many respects, although many European states and parliamentarians would prefer the European Parliament elections to be held under the terms of the Lisbon treaty, the Commission proposal is a real one. I know it must have unanimity but it is legal. It is what people voted for. I am sure people will not state that ultimately we should defy the wishes of the people who voted on the Nice treaty. One cannot have it both ways.
Does the Minister believe the EU will be paralysed by the non-ratification of the Lisbon treaty as some commentators would have us believe? Does he agree that the level of EU legislation, proposals and directives coming before the Oireachtas is at an all-time high and shows the opposite to paralysis?
Does the Minister accept that rather than apologising to EU leaders for the "No" vote, which was the extent of the Taoiseach's speech, and continuously reassuring them that the Irish people remain committed to a European identity, he should acknowledge our support for the EU identity and the Union but be more forceful in putting forward the Irish mandate, which was to state the Lisbon treaty was at an end?
I welcome the Minister's acceptance that it will be the Taoiseach who will have the final say with regard to the reduction of the number of Commissioners. If we have one less Commissioner from 1 November, it will be in the Taoiseach's lap and he will have to vote on it. The vote from Ireland on the Lisbon treaty superseded that on the Nice treaty in stating we did not want a reduction in the number of Commissioners and that people wish to retain it. This is the interpretation of the Lisbon vote.
There is a career for the Acting Chairman in diplomacy.
We argue the non-ratification of the Lisbon treaty diminishes the capacity of the European Union to deal effectively with global issues which affect people on the streets and in their homes in this country and across the Union. In a nutshell this is what I believe the inability to get the Lisbon treaty through means.
In terms of energy and our engagement with oil producing countries such as Russia, the capacity of Europe is diminished in terms of being a significant player. It is far better for Ireland that we have an entity such as Europe to represent us on such key energy issues in an effective and efficient way, which is what the reform of the institutions is all about.
Europe has been a great leader on climate change. However, the rest of the world has not come on board with the same momentum or leadership as Europe. We need an administratively stronger Europe with consistency and continuity at its helm to push these issues with the US. This is also true with regard to globalisation and the emerging economies of China and India.
The Taoiseach did not apologise on behalf of the voters. This is a deliberately dishonest proposition to put before the House.
The Taoiseach was strong and robust at the European Union. He articulated what the Irish people decided. He stated to his European colleagues and Heads of State that they had to respect it. They did respect it and did not seek to isolate Ireland. He also stated that we do not have answers. Europe is in difficulty. We do not have any quick fixes or solutions. The Taoiseach made this clear to such an extent that the conclusions agreed reflect the position of the Taoiseach and the country, which is not to be told we must do X, Y or Z because we are not in a position to state we can do so. We will analyse it ourselves and see how we can map a way forward. This is as far as we went. The conclusions of the summit reflect this position.
With regard to suggesting that the Taoiseach should have told other member states not to do this or that with regard to ratification, in our view it would be unacceptable for us to deny the sovereign right of democratically elected parliaments across the European Union to decide for themselves whether they wish to ratify the Lisbon treaty. Just as we wish them to respect our right to say "No", we must respect their democratic processes and their right to say either "Yes" or "No" through their parliamentary democracies.
I thank the Acting Chairman and I regret we did not get a greater time to ask questions as the lead Opposition party.
I do not expect the Minister to tell me what the Government proposes to do but is he in a position to outline what options are available to him? Away from the Lisbon treaty, will the increase in world food prices have any implications for our policy on bio-fuels? Will a Cabinet sub-committee examine how we promote bio-fuels and the implications for world food prices?
I often hear the term the "unelected elite" of Europe. It is strange to me that the unelected elite in this country all advocated a "No" vote.
With regard to the Charter of Fundamental Rights, I do not advocate in any way an opt out. I seek Government clarification to allay the fears of people with regard to the social and moral issues. I am fully committed to the charter, as is the Labour Party.
One downside to the campaign is that we were unable to campaign on the basis of one of the key elements of the Lisbon treaty which was the justice and home affairs aspect which deals with immigration, cross-border crime, prostitution and human trafficking. These issues are of real concern to the Irish people and I appeal to the Minister that if, as he reflects on the outcome of the referendum, he draws up new proposals to put to the people that we opt in fully to the justice and home affairs aspect.
Was the Minister as impressed as I was when one of the leading lights in the "No" campaign visited Whitehall on the day after the result and announced it to the jubilation of his eurosceptical friends? Was the Minister disappointed that Sinn Féin was not represented in this group to share in the glory that followed in the wake of the announcement?
I am not in a position to outline the options at this point in time. It is far too early and we are in a period of analysis. I intend to engage with the Oireachtas on this issue over the coming months. It is important that the supremacy of the Dáil as the elected forum of the people is reflected and has an input.
With regard to the bio-fuels issue, conflicting views exist on the impact of bio-fuels on the food issue. It is not all related to bio-fuels and deeply contested views are held. Having had access to significant research on bio-fuels in a previous position, the sooner we get to second generation bio-fuel production the better in order that we do not have to divert food production opportunities to the bio-fuels sector. That is the key.
Deputy Creighton referred to the Charter of Fundamental Rights and social issues pertaining to abortion and so on. The charter relates to how the European institutions apply their mandates but Ireland's Maastricht protocol protects our constitutional provisions regarding the right to life of the unborn and this was confirmed by the Archbishop of Dublin. I take on board the Deputy's comments on the home affairs issue but it is arguable others would have used that just as they used the defence and neutrality issue, notwithstanding the protections we have in place, to drive a wedge between the "Yes" and "No" sides. However, in the context of reflection, I appreciate the Deputy's views on those issues and I will take them on board.
Deputy Durkan made a fair point. If one conducted a little research across Europe about who is absolutely delighted with the "No" vote, it is revealing in itself.