Tuesday, 8 April 2008
Lisbon Reform Treaty: Statements
Dick Roche (Minister of State with special responsibility for European Affairs, Department of Foreign Affairs; Minister of State, Department of An Taoiseach; Wicklow, Fianna Fail)
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I am very pleased to speak on the EU reform treaty. Members will be aware that last week the Dáil began the debate and I look forward to it moving to the Seanad.
Before I get into the body of my contribution, I wish to refer to some comments by the French Finance Minister reported in today's newspapers. The statement, as reported, is untimely, unhelpful and, frankly, inappropriate. The House will be aware that to date a paper on the common consolidated corporate tax base, CCCTB, has not been even produced. When such a paper emerges 26 member states as well as France will have a view on the issue. Ireland will not be the only member state which will be negative in so far as CCCTB is concerned.
Any CCCTB proposal would require unanimous agreement and there is absolutely no chance of that. However, what this episode demonstrates is the wisdom of a recent statement by the president of the Institute of Chartered Accountants in Ireland who urged a "yes" vote in the referendum to maximise our standing and our negotiating position in Europe. He went on to state that voting "yes" will achieve that and voting "no", the opposite.
The French Finance Minister was speaking yesterday at an annual Brussels tax forum about the themes for the upcoming French Presidency of the EU in the second half of the year which will include environmental taxation, the savings directive as well as company taxation. On the common consolidated corporate tax base, she admitted that it is a controversial issue and that there may be no swift agreement on it. One could sing that. She also said that France supports the CCCTB concept and that she would like to have a debate on the issue. We would welcome the opportunity for an open, honest and informed discussion on the matter because we will make our opposition clear at that time and so, incidentally, will member states which, like Ireland, have been waiting for this elephant to be deposited.
The reform treaty preserves the existing treaty arrangements whereby taxation matters must be decided by unanimous vote. Taxation matters are, and will remain, within the competence of member states. They are not a Union competence now nor will they be when the treaty is enacted. Any member state can veto a proposal on taxation, and that is as it should be. Any CCCTB proposal would require unanimous agreement to become Community law. A substantial number of member states have already indicated their opposition to the proposal and to the direction this debate has been taking. A CCCTB could not be lawfully established by way of enhanced co-operation if it were liable to impose a degree of enforced harmonisation on non-participating member states.
More importantly, any member state which is not part of an enhanced co-operation agreement cannot be forced to participate in, or be subject to, the decisions made by the group of member states establishing the agreement. The assertions that somehow or other Ireland is to lose its veto on taxation is false. No member state can be forced against its will to change the rules on taxation under the reform treaty or under any other treaty. The reform treaty matters to Ireland and Europe. That is why I take this opportunity to put these views on the record.
The treaty has resulted from a negotiation process that began with the Convention on the Future of Europe. As Senator Quinn identified earlier today, that convention flowed from the Laeken agreement and was informed by the Laeken statement. The convention was an important democratic innovation. It brought the process of EU treaty reform closer to the citizens. It involved representatives of not only EU governments, or their administrations, as had been the case in all previous treaties but also of the national parliaments of the 27 member states. It brought governments and oppositions into the same chamber and the institutions and a civil society pillar together. The input of these various players can be seen in the shape of the treaty. It is a document which provides for greater transparency, enhanced democracy and for a Europe that, more than ever before, can look outwards beyond its borders to the challenges presented by the wider world.
Most importantly, the treaty is a very balanced document. Great balance was achieved in the discussions on the future of Europe and during the Irish IGC. The negotiation process informed the treaty before us. It is particularly beneficial from the viewpoint of smaller member states.
One point should be kept in mind given the suggestion that the negotiators should be sent back to the drawing board to come up with another treaty. Any search for a different outcome could well upset the very hard-earned balance we have achieved in this treaty. To suggest to the other 26 member states that they should start again is, to put it very kindly, a naive course to take. As I said, the existing proposal is a good one and rejecting it would serve no useful purpose, above all for Ireland. Ireland, more than any other member state, copperfastened all its key issues, taxation, neutrality and, as the President of the European Parliament said this morning, our position on abortion in this treaty.
In light of the French Finance Minister's statements, does anybody with a clue as to how negotiations work really think that voting "no", thereby reopening a Pandora's box, including the taxation question, is a good idea? Having sat through the Convention on the Future of Europe, the ICG and the Irish Presidency and been involved in the last set of decisions, I, for one, do not believe it is an idea which has anything to recommend it.
President Pöttering in his address to the Seanad this morning made the point that the EU has seen a Continent turn its back on 19th century nationalism. He is right in that regard. Through economic and political co-operation the Union has consigned disastrous European wars to history. At its heart has been the determination of member states to act, not, as some suggest, in a way that beggars their neighbour or achieves some new hegemony in Europe but, in solidarity in the overall European interest. The essential secret of the European Union is that it is a unique union of equal member states. While it might seem paradoxical to some, particularly those who oppose this treaty, such solidarity, which often involves real compromise and concession, is also in the interests of individual member states, particularly the smaller ones like Ireland.
The treaty enhances the European Union's democratic character. Who in Ireland would vote against more democracy? Not I. It increases the role of the national and EU Parliaments. Who sees this as a dangerous topic? Not I. I believe that the decision to involve national parliaments more intimately in the process of making European law is one of the most revolutionary steps forward since the original Treaty of Rome. The treaty also seeks to reform the decision-making institutions of the EU and makes the Union better equipped to deal with the real issues that are important to the lives of Europe's citizens, globalisation, energy security, climate change and, a more challenging international economic environment. These challenges cannot be addressed by any individual member state but by the Union acting in concert.
The treaty strengthens the voice of the European Union on the world stage. This is a good thing because the European Union is built, as Mr. Pöttering said this morning, on values which come from our constitutions and from the heart of the people. It gives legal effect the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, a fine document. It sets out more clearly the EU's powers and limits and it gives specific powers to the Union to help combat international and cross-border crime.
The increase in the role of national parliaments is of particular relevance to this House. This capacity for national parliaments to invoke the principle of subsidiarity will enhance ownership, parliamentary engagement and accountability. Between us, the 27 member states have almost 10,000 Senators and Members of Parliament. Connecting these many thousands of public representatives directly to the EU legislative process can, and will, inject an entirely new dynamic into the democratic functioning of the Union. For example, I was taken by a document recently produced by IBEC in which it explored exactly what this would mean to Irish businesses, small, medium and large. IBEC made the point that Irish businesses will be better able to communicate their concerns and wishes to the directly elected members of the Dáil and Seanad Éireann and to represent their views at a much earlier stage in the process of law making than is the case currently.
Some opponents of the treaty have dismissed this step as insignificant. I respectfully disagree and I believe that the vast majority of parliamentarians across Europe would share my view. The impact of this change will be largely what we, parliamentarians, make it. The enhancement of the European Parliament's co-decision-making powers, the introduction of the so-called "yellow card" for national parliaments and the citizens' initiative makes the Union more effective, open and democratically accountable. As stated by Mr. Pöttering this morning, when he entered, as a directly elected member, the Parliament of Europe in 1979 it had no co-decision rights. Following ratification of this treaty, it will be involved in virtually every single area. This cannot be dismissed as anything other than positive in a nation that espouses democracy.
In doing so, the treaty aims to show that political leaders have learned from their dialogue with citizens and are bringing representatives of the people of Europe closer into the process. Some opponents of the treaty worry about what they see as a loss of sovereignty, an argument that has been around for 35 years. One respects people's views. The greatest measure of our sovereignty is our capacity to chart our own course; to meet our obligations and to realise our ambitions. In this respect, we are better able today to provide a decent pension for the elderly and a better living for the young. We are better able to build a future for current and future generations and are less likely than ever before to wave off new generations to a future of emigration. These are practical, day-to-day, food-on-the-table measures of sovereignty. I put it to this House, we are much better in the expression of our sovereignty of a nation now than in 1972. We are more the masters of our destiny today than we were then.
Many people are attached to the nation state and the sense of identity and security that goes with it. I am one of those people. I believe the concept of the nation state is alive and well. I am a Wexford man by birth, I live in Wicklow, I am Irish and European. It is not a question of being one or the other but of being all at the same time. Most of us would acknowledge that we must pool our resources if we, small countries, are to have any chance of coping with the global challenges facing us. If we are honest, we know this is a major reason so many countries want to be part of the Union. The test we face is legitimising the institutions we have created and the structures we have built to implement the policies we have devised to face our global challenges. For reasons of language and culture this is not straightforward. That is why I agree with those who say it is important to find better ways of connecting our national political institutions with the European institutions. What is certain, beyond doubt, is that the treaty does that; it creates a greater sense of connection than ever before.
The EU institutions should not be viewed as remote, irrelevant bodies. They, and the careful balance that exists between them, play a real role in the lives of European citizens. This balance, particularly that between the European Commission, the Council and the European Parliament, has served the interests of Europe well for more than 50 years. It has also served this nation well for more than 35 years. In doing so, it has served the interests of the small and the large states.
I recall during the debate on the second Nice treaty referendum asking an opponent during an interview on a radio station to name one occasion when large member states had ganged up on small member states. That does not happen. It is not the way the Union works. That is why the Government places great value on preserving this balance. It is why we worked hard to this end on the convention and during the negotiations on the constitutional and reform treaties. It is because this vital balance has been preserved that we wholeheartedly endorse the treaty. We were part of what was known as "the friends of the Community method", a group of small and medium sized countries in the convention. We created a lot of difficulties for Mr. Giscard d'Estaing but we did so because we wanted balance. We wanted equality to be recognised and enshrined and we won that battle. One of the great victories in the Convention on the Future of Europe was when the small and medium states managed to persuade the large states it was in everybody's interest to recognise equality. To suggest, as opponents do, that small member states are losing their footing in this treaty does not ring true. The scenario painted by opponents would suggest that the majority of governments, which, after all, represent small and medium-sized states, took leave of their senses and accepted an agreement that was against their national interests. That is not likely and it did not happen.
In the Commission, there is equality of treatment between member states and that is a good idea. In the Council, the double majority system strikes a reasonable balance and recognises the equality between member states and citizens. People who argue that we have had our voting strength halved are not telling the truth. The reality of the new voting system is that a 55% majority of member states representing not less than 65% of member states is required. To suggest, as Sinn Féin has done, that this is not the case, is simply to decide one will decide who wins a hurling match by not counting those balls that go over the bar.
In the European Parliament, small member states continue to be allocated more seats than strict population criteria would allow. For some, our membership of the Union after 35 years is a given or something to be taken for granted. However, I take a different view. I take the view that it is part of our role to build the Union, to create a more equal and democratic one and one that works and builds on the previous blocks. We, like all member states, have a right to see it develop in the direction we want it to go.
The Union gives us in Ireland a platform to develop our economy and improve the living standards of our citizens. It gives us a place at the table to put forward our views on the important global issues of the day. It gives us confidence as a nation that goes with membership of a group of countries possessing shared aspirations and, most importantly, shared values.
The treaty will give the Union the flexibility and capability to face the major challenges that lie ahead. The sheer scale of the challenges — climate change, migration, the eradication of poverty and globalisation — means that no single country of any scale can deal with those problems, let alone a small country. The European Union is the most effective way of dealing with these problems we face. It is the most effective organisation, universally, for that purpose. It has an important role in creating a better future and has a real responsibility to play that role effectively.
The reform treaty recognises this. In creating a President of the European Council, it is creating more efficiency within the Council. The president title seems to scare some people, but it means little more than the title "cathaoirleach". In creating a high representative for common foreign and security policy, the treaty aims to give the Union a clearer and more coherent voice in international affairs. Having regard to the manner in which international affairs have turned in recent years, surely a coherent voice that represents more clearly the combined values of the European member states is something to which we should look forward. This voice will reflect the shared interests and values of European people — a voice that will have democracy, human rights and the rule of law at its core. It will be a consensus voice that will speak on behalf of and follow the mandate of all the member states. The new high representative will not be an authority in his or her right. That role will follow the role prescribed by the member states.
We, as a small nation, have a strong interest in preventing and resolving regional and global conflicts and in creating a fairer international order. We have an interest in bringing our influence and principles to bear. The best way for us to do this is through active engagement in the Union, in particular as the Union has as its core the principles of the United Nations Charter. This is not to say that our national voice or interests will be submerged. That will not be the case. Unanimity will continue to rule with regard to the common foreign and security policy, in particular in the defence area. This also applies to military and defence applications. There is absolutely no threat to our traditional policy of military neutrality. Again the myth makers are attempting to mislead the Irish people.
I would like to address some issues concerning the referendum. One issue has been the question of creating more information. The best thing we can do as democrats, whether we are in favour of or against this treaty, is to engage the people in a truthful dialogue about it and to have a narration on the treaty which deals with its provisions and not with myths. To facilitate this, we have taken certain steps because we believe a high voter turnout is important. It is important because it is our constitution and every citizen in this State has a right and a responsibility to protect it.
The Government published a White Paper last week which explains the content of the treaty in a clear, factual and detailed manner. The White Paper is available free of charge from my Department. It is being distributed to public libraries, citizens advice centres and other public offices. It is also available on the reform treaty website. All key documents are available in Irish and in English and there are special versions for the visually impaired. Additionally, we will distribute an explanatory guide to the treaty later this month to every household in the country. That has been available from the freefone number since early in the year. Every library and citizens information centre also has received multiple copies of all the key documents.
Separately, the referendum commission will begin shortly its work of providing independent and impartial information to voters on the subject matter of the referendum. The Forum on Europe, which was mentioned this morning, deserves further positive mention as it has done incredible work. Other organisations are involved also in engaging in the hosting of public information meetings throughout the country.
In total, therefore, there is and will be a wealth of information available to citizens. The Government is fully content to let the facts speak for themselves. This is a good treaty. When the people realise it is about creating a more open, transparent, democratic, efficient and effective Europe built on rights and which enshrines in its law the Charter of Fundamental Rights, the people will be persuaded, as I am, that this is a good treaty.
I believe the Irish people will vote "yes" for positive reasons. I do not like an element that crept into the debate of bullying, badgering and misleading the people. No one in this referendum should try to scare or bully people in voting in any particular direction. It would be futile and counter-productive because the Irish people are and will be the best informed in Europe.
On the "yes" side, we believe the treaty speaks loudly and positively for itself. We will highlight and explain these attributes. Where necessary, we will counter the misrepresentations about the treaty, some of which are bizarre, even by the standards of previous referenda. We will vote "yes" because we recognise the value of Ireland's involvement in the European project. Who would challenge the fact that Ireland today is an infinitely more wealthy, self-confident, progressive, forward-looking place than it was in 1972?
Dick Roche (Minister of State with special responsibility for European Affairs, Department of Foreign Affairs; Minister of State, Department of An Taoiseach; Wicklow, Fianna Fail)
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I remember entering the Civil Service as a young civil servant in 1972. The order of the day was mass migration — emigration. Our biggest export was our people. Our industry was basic and protected behind barriers. Our only trading partner of any order was the United Kingdom. Today we have become one of the most successful economies in the world. We no longer force our young people, our talent, our patrimony to leave our shores. As a nation, we have grown self-confident, progressive and dynamic in Europe because of Europe. As the President of the European Parliament said in this House earlier, we have added to Europe. We will vote "yes" because the Irish people value the peace that the European Union has shaped on the Continent and we recognise the support that Europe has given to shaping peace on this island. We will vote "yes" because we value a more democratic place. We value the ideas for which that the Union stands. We want a more effective and efficient Union. We want a Union that can champion peace, justice, democracy, the rule of law, human rights and respect for the individual in an all too often troubled world. We will vote "yes" because, as a practical people, we recognise that the best way to deal with the major global challenges that face the world today is to combine our efforts. As was said this morning, the essential genius of the European Union was that by pooling small amounts of sovereignty, huge mountains were climbed. Above all, we will vote "yes" because the majority of the Irish people can see and are convinced our development, our place as a nation and our future economic well-being are best served by keeping Ireland where it has been for the past 35 years — at the heart of Europe.
I will be speaking to American Chamber of Commerce Ireland tomorrow morning. I was much taken by a document it produced which illustrates how much value there is in being where we are in Europe. This document was produced two months ago in Brussels. It points out that this island nation off the coast of Europe with a population of 4.2 million attracted $88 billion in US foreign direct investment to our shores in the period to 2006. In the same period Brazil, India, Russia and China attracted US$73 billion in such investment. That US$88 billion investment in this country produced jobs and resulted in prosperity flowing through our economy.
When Seán Lemass signed a document on 31 July 1961 to apply to join the then EEC, he could not in his wildest dreams have imagined the momentousness of that day. Ireland is the only country that will be asked to vote in a referendum on this treaty. I celebrate that fact. It is a good thing. Referenda are good things. Democracy is a good thing. If all of us on either side of the argument bring truthful arguments to the Irish people, the vote will be "yes". I hope that will be the case.
I thank the Minister of State for coming again to the House to discuss the Lisbon treaty. I compliment him on his energy and determination in pursuing a vigorous campaign to have the treaty passed in a referendum. The important lesson we have learned from the Nice treaty referendums is that we do not want domestic political issues clouding the decision. We want the treaties to be judged on their merits and we want people to be informed and to have a high turnout. The events of the past week, where Deputy Bertie Ahern has resigned as Taoiseach, have effectively removed a major issue which was clouding the debate. I have no doubt this would have had a determining effect on the outcome.
I questioned whether this referendum could be won if Deputy Bertie Ahern was still Taoiseach, last November, when the Minister of State was in this House. He took umbrage with my comments that day, but time has shown it was a correct statement. I am glad these domestic political issues will not cloud the decision on 12 June, if that is the date of the referendum. Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and all the parties are playing their part in informing people, trying to give a correct account of what is actually in the treaty, and the significance of the changes proposed. We will be playing our part in ensuring that Fine Gael supporters and those who we can influence will vote on the day. As the Minister of State has said, the facts speak for themselves. When the document is examined and judged on its merits, I believe the treaty will be passed.
It is also important to state that the treaty did not emerge from thin air. Like all previous treaties it arose from a response to the political and economic demands and challenges of each era. The Treaty of Rome, 1957, was established in Europe to ensure that economic integration would lead to the establishment of post-war economic recovery. The Single European Act 1986 was designed to improve the competitiveness of Europe, providing for the completion of the Internal Market. The Maastricht treaty was designed to establish economic and monetary union, among many other things, and ultimately the establishment of the euro. The purpose of the Amsterdam treaty was to prepare the Union for enlargement and the Nice treaty was designed to make essentially institutional changes. Ireland played a part in each case and had a very big influence in shaping the treaties. President Pöttering this morning pointed out the important events which took place when Ireland had the Presidency. Liam Cosgrave was President of the European Council during the Irish Presidency, from January to June 1975, Garret FitzGerald in 1984, Charlie Haughey in 1990, John Bruton in 1996 and the outgoing Taoiseach in 2004.
The Cohesion Fund is a good example of the many areas in which Ireland has influenced the shape of Europe. Most of the significant changes took place after Ireland's entry to the EEC. The Single European Act, the first change, came about as a result of work carried out by Jim Dooge, a former Senator and Minister for Foreign Affairs. He was appointed to chair the Dooge Committee, which essentially laid the basis for the structure and wording of the Single European Act. Having participated in this process for 35 years and played our part in shaping the nature of the Union to which we belong, it is surely not credible that we now question elements of the basic structure of the European Union which have been decided on and from which we have benefited. That is what is happening, to some extent, in the debate which is taking place.
With regard to many of the changes, we can recall the Crotty judgment of the Supreme Court in the early 1980s. From that judgment resulted the decision to have a referendum in that period on the Single European Act. What is forgotten, however, is that this judgment approved of many of the changes included in the Act — as being covered by Ireland's original decision to enter Europe, in the first referendum. The Supreme Court stated:
[T]he Community is a developing organism, with diverse and changing methods for making decisions, and an inbuilt and clearly expressed objective of expansion and progress, both in terms of the number of its Member States and in terms of the mechanics to be used in the achievement of its agreed objectives.
It is very important to bear this in mind.
The need for a referendum was decided by the Supreme Court on one issue concerning the foreign policy element of that treaty. In terms of moving from unanimity voting to qualified majority voting, QMV, the court ruled that this was something that could be anticipated by Ireland's decision, when it entered the European Economic Community, given that it was an evolving mechanism. We hear the same argument in the current debate as regards the fact that we are losing our sovereignty as more decisions move from unanimity voting to QMV.
My view is that this treaty does not raise any constitutional issues. I have never heard a convincing argument as to why we actually need, on legal grounds, to have a referendum. I agree with what Peter Sutherland said recently, that of all the treaties we have adopted as regards amendments to the original Treaty of Rome, this is, perhaps, the least significant.
One feature of the Europe Union is very important when we examine the question of the adoption and ratification of this treaty. Taking one simple example, we are concerned about Ireland's position within the Commission. We have had excellent Commissioners who have managed while in office to keep an to keep an eye on Europe, and Irish interests therein. When it was suggested that the number of Commissioners should be limited it was argued that the larger member states would never give up their two Commissioners, but they did. It was then said they would never agree to rotation on a pure equality basis, and they did. That is what is in this treaty, namely, that we are among equals when it comes to membership of the European Commission. It will rotate and Ireland will have its turn, the same as the larger member states. No objections, therefore, can be raised in that regard.
As regards the move to QMV, one has to examine those areas where we are moving from unanimity voting. When one examines the individual policy areas, there is no threat to Irish sovereignty. It is a system from which we benefit. As the Minister of State has said, we have never been overruled and outvoted on matters that are of vital national interest. The key policy areas which the treaty introduces, and which require emphasis as being of particular importance to Ireland, are in the areas of organised and cross-Border crime, people trafficking, etc. These matters involve policing and judicial co-operation. As the President of the European Parliament, Herr Pöttering said this morning, with regard to the Charter of Fundamental Rights, Europe is a Union of values. To consolidate the principles and values by which the Community operates is very important. Also important is the increased role of national parliaments in ensuring that Europe does not overstep the mark in terms of legislation that can best be handled at national level.
This treaty is not about the creation of a European superstate. It is not about interfering in any way with our decision as regards abortion in Ireland. The protocol in the Maastricht treaty secured that and it is being carried forward. It is not about the democratic deficit because, if anything, it is designed to enhance democracy and transparency in the Union. It is not about interfering with our corporation or income tax rates. It is not about Irish neutrality because the Nice treaty, ratified in our last constitutional referendum, prevents Ireland from joining an EU common defence alliance without a further referendum. It is not about privatisation or an end to the principle of competition. Contrary to the belief of different groups, including Sinn Féin and Libertas, the European Union does not decide on the privatisation of industry. It recognises the principle, firmly established in this treaty, of providing services of general economic interest. Interpretations in this regard favouring Ireland have been made by the European Court of Justice in recent cases, such as those concerning the ambulance service, An Post, and risk equalisation in respect of the VHI. These have all been approved on the basis of such principles. The European Union has an increasing influence on our lives but it has, in general, been benign and beneficial. If there is frustration with the Union in any area, it should be, and is, over the manner in which we implement EU law.
There is no good reason for Ireland to vote against this treaty. We would generate a lot of good-will by voting "yes". To jeopardise for no good reason the goodwill we have in Europe, which we have enjoyed for 35 years, would be very foolhardy.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Roche, and his officials to the House. I wish the Minister of State well in this campaign because he has enormous responsibility. He is acquitting himself very well, as he did in respect of the second referendum on the Nice treaty. He changed public opinion and had that treaty ratified.
Senator Regan has vast knowledge of the European Union and the proposed treaty, but he should note that it is right and proper to have a referendum. One could argue whether it is necessary legally — I know the Senator is a barrister — but different lawyers have different opinions on the matter. The referendum is giving everyone a great opportunity to vote——
That is fair enough.
I will be voting "yes" on 12 June. I do not need to emphasise how important Irish involvement in the European Union has become. The reform treaty is crucial to continuing and developing that involvement and Ireland is in the unique position of holding a referendum on its ratification. Consequently, 4 million people in Ireland will effectively decide the future of an institution with an overall population of nearly 500 million people. All eyes in Europe will be on Ireland on the day of the referendum, most likely 12 June.
Three of the main objections to the treaty have been dealt with comprehensively in many fora. There is simply no way in which the Lisbon treaty will undermine our sovereignty in matters of military activity or taxation. The Minister of State outlined this clearly today, as has the Minister for Foreign Affairs, in light of the comments of the French finance Minister, Christine Lagarde, reported in The Irish Times today. I compliment the Minister of State, Dick Roche, on his clear statement today. It is very important that it be clear. I wonder why the French are endeavouring to undermine our campaign on the reform treaty. While the issue has been raised, it has been dealt with comprehensively by the Minister of State and Minister for Foreign Affairs. The remaining members of the Government will do so in due course.
The reform treaty will not affect domestic policy or matters such as abortion. Nothing that happens at the meeting of the Council of Europe next week regarding Ms Gisela Wurm's proposal on abortion will have a bearing on Ireland or jurisdiction therein. Hans-Gert Pöttering, President of the European Parliament, clearly stated this in the House this morning in his excellent, passionate and well-informed speech. It was great to have him present. He made a very clear statement on many issues has been a great help. I hope his speech is published widely in Ireland.
There are many campaigns currently under way to inform the public about the treaty. In the coming weeks, the Joint Committee on European Affairs, of which I am a member, will hold open public meetings around the country at which experts will speak on the implications of the treaty. When the Referendum Commission is established, it will undertake its own independent campaign to inform voters of the issues at stake. Those who advocate a "no" vote on the grounds that there is insufficient information available should open their eyes to the vast amount of information available on-line, in the media and from public representatives. The documentation of the Minister of State is very helpful in this regard. All the arguments have been dealt with comprehensively and very useful speaking notes have been provided for anyone making a contribution on radio or television.
Contrary to some assertions made by witnesses to the Joint Committee on European Affairs earlier today, hard copies of the text of the treaty are available free of charge to the public throughout the country in all public libraries and at other locations. The document would be practically impossible to send to every household because it is so long, large and comprehensive.
Those who advocate a "no" vote simply on the grounds that the treaty is too complex and the text too long should realise that the treaty's purpose is to improve and develop the co-operation between 27 member states consisting of almost 500 million people in a very diverse range of areas. If such a document were short and simple, then there would be something to worry about.
There is no confusion over what the main implications of the treaty will be. The main features are clear and generally unobjectionable. They include a new voting system in the Council of Ministers to make decision-making more effective; a greater role for national parliaments in the Union's activities; a rotating system of membership of the European Commission, equal to all members. Eighteen Commissioners will be chosen from the 27 member states but this will not come into force until 2014. There will be equality in that each member state, for a period of five years out of 15, will not have a Commissioner, but there will be representation at the Council of Ministers. There is no change in this regard. This was decided ultimately by the Council of Ministers, as I know having represented the country in respect of the Single European Act.
Other main features of the treaty include a full-time President of the European Council to co-ordinate and chair EU summit meetings, appointed on a 2.5-year basis. I hope we will have a very suitable, qualified and idea candidate for this role when the treaty is approved. We all wish our potential candidate well. He is one of the most experienced politicians in Europe. I refer to the outgoing and wonderful Taoiseach, Deputy Bertie Ahern.
The treaty will also make provision for a High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, who will bring greater coherence to the Union's approach to foreign policy. There is to be a Charter of Fundamental Rights which is to be given legally binding status. These are all very positive features and can be adopted comprehensively and with great satisfaction. In the negotiations, Ireland succeeded in achieving its key priorities, including maintaining unanimous decision-making on tax matters; ensuring balance in the Union's institutions and equality with regard to membership in the Commission; and protecting Ireland's traditional policy of military neutrality.
The Lisbon reform treaty is not a self-amending treaty, as some claim. The provisions for simplified amendment of EU treaties clearly state that every alteration must be ratified "according to the constitutional requirements of each member state". Out of the 27 member states, Ireland is unique in that its citizens will be asked to vote on ratification. I hope the referendum will be on 12 June. The treaty is our treaty and this is why it is so important that voters be well informed. The campaign on the treaty is very exciting because ratification is now the most vital issue in Europe. All eyes in Europe will be on Ireland on referendum day. We must be at the centre of decision-making in Europe. By voting "yes" in the referendum, we will be maintaining our position. Anything less than a "yes" vote will be totally unacceptable, not to our 26 partners but for the future of this country, including the future of employment. Our position and strength in Europe will be guaranteed by voting "yes" in the referendum. If we vote "no", it will be a slap in the face to the Union, which has given us so much since 1973.
Membership has changed this country totally, as outlined by the Minister of State in great detail. The changes to the structures of the European Union are necessary to update the workings of an institution which was designed for less than ten member states but now consists of 27 states and will expand further, to the benefit of all members. For example, the creation of the position of President of the European Council will mean there will be greater continuity than there is currently with the six-month rotating Presidency system. Giving national Parliaments a greater role will address any perceptions of a democratic deficit in the legislative process of the EU.
The role of the Joint Committee on European Scrutiny will be expanded to ensure everyone has a say in that regard. Today I attended a meeting of that committee where all the European legislation was brought forward and will be sent to different committees of these Houses for processing and consideration.
It is wonderful that all legislation being published by the European Union will now come to each independent Parliament for consideration and we will have certain rights, yellow cards, etc. I compliment the Minister of State, Deputy Roche, on his negotiating skills in this regard. He played a pivotal role in negotiating this treaty in Europe. I am confident we will get it through but it will need our combined efforts. I am delighted most of the parties in this House are in favour of the treaty and it shows the wisdom of the electoral process and the democratic system.