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Statement by the Taoiseach, Mr. Brian Cowen T.D. on Report of the Sub-Committee on Ireland's Future in the European Union Dáil Éireann, on Tuesday 9 December 2008


I am delighted, in this important week leading up to the European Council, to have this opportunity to address the House on the recently completed report of the Sub-Committee on Ireland's Future in the European Union. We all owe a great debt of gratitude to the Sub-Committee -- to its Chairman, Senator Pascal Donohue, its Vice-Chairman, Deputy Timmy Dooley, to the members and to the many witnesses, all of whom worked to extremely demanding deadlines in order to deliver the Report that is the subject of our discussion this evening.

The genesis of this Report lies in the aftermath of the referendum when I explained to my European Union colleagues that Ireland would need time to seek to understand the concerns underlying the No vote: "to engage in serious and careful analysis of the outcome of the referendum and its implications", as I said at the European Council in June.
This analysis took two forms. First of all, we commissioned independent research into the reasons behind the vote, with which you are all familiar. We went to great efforts to make the results of this research very widely available. For the most part, the study confirmed what many of us suspected. Other findings, for example on conscription, were more surprising.

While the figures emerging from the study are interesting, we were determined that the exploration of the reasons underlying the vote would move beyond a mere interrogation of data. We wanted a deeper engagement with the issues that were on the minds of the Irish people when they cast their vote in June.

Working with the other political parties represented in this House, we supported the establishment by the Oireachtas of an all-party Sub-Committee -- indeed a Sub-Committee that reached beyond party allegiance to include independents -- to examine the issues that contributed to the referendum result.

It was agreed that the Sub-Committee should carry out its work under four broad headings:
to analyse the challenges facing Ireland in the European Union following the Lisbon Treaty Referendum result;
to consider Ireland's future in the EU including in relation to economic and financial matters, social policy, defence and foreign policy and our influence within the European Institutions;
to make recommendations to enhance the role of the Houses of our Parliament in EU affairs; and
to consider measures to improve public understanding of the EU and its fundamental importance for Ireland's future.

The Sub-Committee's report, which is both well structured and well written, mirrors this mandate in its chapter layout.
From the outset, the Sub-Committee's work was guided by the requirement to be as inclusive as possible. It is galling, therefore, to hear accusations that the Sub-Committee was in some way skewed or prejudiced in its work. The Sub-Committee was designed to be inclusive, both in its membership and in its witnesses.

All of the political parties in the Oireachtas were represented, including those who had campaigned against the Treaty, to ensure that as broad a range of voices as possible was heard.

In all, over the course of its work, the Sub-Committee met more than 110 witnesses from over 40 different organisations from both inside Ireland and from abroad. Those organisations, too, represented a wide spectrum of inputs, viewpoints and concerns.

It is, of course, a matter of regret that not all members of the Sub-Committee could agree to its final report. For my part, I am satisfied that the Sub-Committee's overall analysis of the challenges facing Ireland is fair and comprehensive, and that it represents an important contribution to our search for a way forward in the difficult circumstances in which we now find ourselves.

The Sub-Committee was not mandated to recommend a solution to the post-referendum situation, nor did it do so. Nonetheless, its work has provided some extremely valuable inputs for the Government in preparing for this week's European Council meeting.
This tight deadline partly was consistent with the Government's desire to have the Sub-Committee's inputs before it would take a position at the European Council later this week. That the Sub-Committee managed to report within such a timeframe is a credit to the commitment and energy of all who were involved in its work.

The report is underpinned by one profoundly encouraging finding: Ireland's place is at the heart of the European Union, contributing positively and deploying our influence carefully to promote our national interests.

That said, the Report recognises that Ireland's ability to do this: to contribute positively and to defend our interests has been, at the least impaired; and that very real, long-term damage to our interests will arise if we fail to find a way through the present impasse.

This, I think, is a key point. Some, I know, were frustrated during the course of the Sub-Committee's work at what they perceived was a difficulty in identifying specific instances of damage being done.
The important point made by this Report, I think, is that the damage has been systemic more than it has been specific; that while certain individual cases can be pointed-to, far more significant is the wholesale shift in the perception of Ireland.

For right or wrong, our partners abroad -- whether they are investment boards of multi-national companies deciding on where to invest in Europe, or foreign governments assessing where their "friends" lie when they are doing business at EU level -- perceive a change in our attitude. Our position has traditionally been enthusiastically European, at the centre of negotiations, working to secure outcomes with the broadest possible appeal; pragmatic and constructive. I fear that we may no longer be perceived in that way.

It was reassuring for all who care about Ireland's future in the Union to see the issues identified empirically by the research project being reinforced, again and again, at the Sub-Committee: this suggests that we are on the right track in our search for a solution at the European level.

In addition to this reassurance about our EU level approach, the Sub-Committee's recommendations about our domestic approach make very interesting reading. An Oireachtas Sub-Committee is uniquely well positioned to comment on domestic practices and procedures, and the Sub-Committee's Report does not disappoint in this respect.

A majority of the Sub-Committee's suggestions relate to domestic practices and procedures in relation to the way we do EU business in Ireland. Many of them in particular have important consequences for the Houses of the Oireachtas, for example its recommendations for electoral change, procedural change, an Oireachtas communications strategy, and new scrutiny mechanisms.

There is a clear sense, running through the Report, that we need to reconsider the manner in which both Houses engage in the business of the EU. It is reassuring for me as Taoiseach to see such a willingness on the part of the Oireachtas to participate in this important aspect of our international relations.

The decision on whether to proceed with many of the Sub-Committee's proposals will rest with the Oireachtas, but I can assure members that the Government approaches this matter with an open mind, and will not be found wanting in its response.

In publishing the Sub-Committee's report, the Oireachtas has completed what the Minister for Foreign Affairs has fairly described as "its most sustained exploration of the issues surrounding our membership of the EU since we first joined". This in itself is an extremely healthy undertaking. That this exchange took place against the backdrop of such unprecedented economic events, globally, Union-wide and domestically, serves only to underline the importance of the questions under examination by the Sub-Committee.

Taken together, the independent research commissioned by the Government and the Report of the Sub-Committee provide a comprehensive overview and analysis of the reasons the Irish people voted as they did. One extremely important consideration affecting people's decisions was their lack of understanding of the content of the Treaty.
This is something that we will need to remedy ourselves, though of course that does not exclude working closely with the EU institutions or others on this task.

Where our engagement with the Union is concerned, however, it is clear that there are a number of areas where the Irish people will require reassurance. I outlined four of these when I spoke at the European Council in October:

(i) the future composition of the Commission;
(ii) issues related to defence and our tradition of neutrality;
(iii) social/ethical matters; and
(iv) taxation

The resolution of these matters is not going to be an easy task. The Lisbon Treaty represents the finely balanced conclusion of a protracted negotiation between the Member States of the Union.

That said, the Government has made clear in all of its dealings with our partners that the Irish people have very real concerns that are genuinely-held and require responses. There is understanding for our position among partners, and there is a willingness among them to work with us, but I would be failing in my duty if I suggested to this House that we have an easy task ahead of us.
Some partners have been ready to be accommodating; others have raised serious concerns. All of the Member States of the Union made concessions in order to reach agreement on the language of the Treaty; some went a short distance to reach consensus, but some travelled a very long way, making key concessions out of a spirit of compromise. These States remain keenly aware of the sacrifices they made.

Together with the Minister for Foreign Affairs and the Minister for European Affairs, I have been engaged in intensive consultations with fellow Member States and the institutions during the last few weeks. In our discussions, we have sought to tread a careful path between ensuring that the concerns of the Irish people can be responded to, while not causing insurmountable difficulties for others.

As the House will understand, even at this late stage, mere days before the European Council, I am not in a position to describe in detail the shape of the agreement that might be reached at the end of this week. In fact, I would venture to say, no one is. If the Treaty of Lisbon is to enter into force, it requires the agreement of all Member States.

But I do have a clear idea of what we want. The Government will need to be able to reassure the people that their genuinely held concerns have been taken on board by the other Member States.

When I travel to the European Council this week I will be aiming to achieve a political agreement that the concerns of the Irish public with regard to the Treaty will be responded to in a satisfactory way, both in substance and in a legally robust manner. This week will be a real test of the Union's capacity to accommodate our respective needs; I believe the Union has that capacity.

The Minister for Foreign Affairs was quoted over the weekend as saying that talks would go to the wire, and I agree with that assessment. It will only emerge later this week whether or not we have agreed the elements of a solution that we judge to meet our needs.

That note of caution aside, I have been encouraged by the strength of commitment shown by others, in particular by the French Presidency, in helping us to find a way forward. There is, I believe, a genuine wish on all sides to reach a solution, and we will do everything possible to build on it.

The Union is a dynamic system; it is in constant flux, as it seeks to improve the way it does business. Where it has come across problems, it has always shown itself to be constructive and creative in finding solutions. Where new challenges have been thrown down, it has risen to meet them. It is my deep hope that, come Friday evening, building on the Government's work to date and the strong sense of solidarity that exists between Member States, we will have moved one step closer to resolving the dilemma in which Ireland, and Europe, find ourselves.