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Statement by the Taoiseach, Mr. Brian Cowen T.D. to Dáil Éireann on Wednesday 17 December 2008 on the outcome of the December European Council


I attended the meeting of the European Council in Brussels on Thursday and Friday, 11 and 12 December. I was accompanied at the meeting by the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Micheál Martin, T.D.  The Minister of State with responsibility for European Union Affairs, Dick Roche, T.D. and the Attorney General were also part of the delegation.

The Council had an unusually heavy agenda.  While the bulk of discussion centered on the Treaty of Lisbon, the Energy and Climate Change negotiations and the economic and financial crisis, other issues were also dealt with.

That such a heavy agenda could be completed with unanimously agreed conclusions is testament, I believe, to the excellent French Presidency of the Union over the last six months.  France deployed its own highly successful mix of pragmatism, determination and dynamism.

In acknowledging France’s success, I must single out the particularly effective role played by President Nicolas Sarkozy.  I have met with President Sarkozy on several occasions in recent months.  We are indebted to him for the leadership and assistance he has provided for Europe.  I also believe that President Sarkozy has shown himself to be a friend of Ireland.

When I reported to this House following the October Council, I said that our task in the period ahead would be to work out how to address our concerns in relation to the Lisbon Treaty in a way which could be endorsed by all 27 Member States. 

I believe that with the cooperation of our partners in the European Union, the outcome of last week’s Council represents a very major step towards delivering the way forward.  

Before going into the detail of last week’s meeting, I think it is useful to briefly recap on the context against which it took place, and the steps which the Government has taken since the Referendum.


The Government accepted the outcome of the referendum last June, and undertook to manage the impasse arising as a result of it. 

We sought to gain an understanding of the reasons underlying the rejection of the Treaty.  That included the commissioning of very comprehensive research, the findings of which have been published and with which the House is familiar.  The Government cooperated with the other parties in the Oireachtas in the establishment of the Sub-Committee on Ireland’s future in the European Union which undertook intensive and broad work, hearing from some 110 witnesses from over 40 organisations. 

We then brought the key concerns, as identified in the Government’s research and examined by the Oireachtas Committee, to our partners in Europe and requested that they be responded to.  We did this through direct and extensive contact at many levels.  The Minister for Foreign Affairs and the Minister for European Affairs and our diplomatic network were extremely active in engaging with all other Member States. 

For my own part, I stayed in close contact in particular with President Sarkozy, meeting on a number of occasions.  As the Council meeting approached, I undertook a number of visits to European Capitals to meet with leaders and to discuss our approach with them and hear their views.  Early last week I spoke by telephone with as many of my European Council colleagues as proved possible to once again outline our concerns and explain the nature of the response which we felt was required.

Last week, we took those concerns to the European Council.  I wish to place on the record a summary of what I said last week to my EU counterparts at the European Council.

Statement to the Council

I began by reminding my colleagues that Ireland had agreed in October to seek to identify the elements of a solution which could command the support of all at the December Council meeting. 

I stressed the Government’s belief that the Treaty of Lisbon is important for the Union’s future development.  

But I also recalled that it could only enter into force if it is ratified by all 27 Member States.

I made clear that the concerns of the Irish people as expressed in the context of the referendum had to be reflected in any solution.

And I elaborated on what I had said in October about those concerns: 

many people felt that they lacked sufficient information or understanding for them to vote yes;

many were concerned at a perceived loss of influence to Ireland, particularly when the Commission ceased to include a national of every Member State;

others were worried that decisions on important social and ethical issues – especially, but not only, abortion – would be taken out of Irish hands. Or that worker’s rights would somehow be constrained;

some felt that the position on tax, notably corporation tax, was somehow undermined by Lisbon; and

others were concerned that our traditional policy of military neutrality – to which very many Irish people, whether they voted yes or no, feel a very strong sense of attachment – would be compromised by Lisbon. Some were even misled to fear that it could lead to conscription to a European army.

I said that while some of these fears and concerns were misplaced or based on misapprehension or mis-information, that did not take from the fact that they were sincerely held and require a respectful response.

I briefed my colleagues on the European Council on the work of the Oireachtas sub-Committee on Ireland’s future in Europe, noting that it had representation from across the political spectrum.  I wish again, as I did last week, to record my appreciation for the work of that Committee and the way in which it carried out its business.

I informed the European Council that the Committee’s report stated clearly that to help secure Ireland firmly at the heart of Europe, the concerns that arose during the referendum campaign need to be addressed.

I made clear that the response to the concerns of the Irish people had to be satisfactory.  I then set out the nature of the response to the concerns that I felt was required.

Firstly, I said that retaining a Commissioner was a real concern for the Irish people.  There was no doubt that it had played an extremely significant part during the referendum campaign, and that a change was necessary in order to respond to the feeling among the public that the loss of a commissioner represented a considerable loss of influence.

Secondly, I said that we needed an undertaking that the other concerns of the Irish people, which I had set out and which are recorded in the annex to the conclusions, would be addressed satisfactorily, and in a legally robust manner where appropriate. This needed to include a reaffirmation by the Union of the value it attaches to issues such as workers’ rights and national competence in relation to key public services.   

Negotiations on the conclusions lasted for many hours on the Thursday evening and resumed on the Friday morning.  I am very pleased to report to this House that we were able to reach unanimous agreement at the Council on the response to our concerns.


That unanimous agreement represents an extremely encouraging response to the concerns of the Irish people. 

Ceann Comhairle, our partners are prepared to adjust the institutional balance agreed within the Lisbon Treaty to provide that Member States keep a commissioner each in response to Irish concerns.  This is a very significant move. 

A number of Member States were strongly opposed.  However, they ultimately accepted that this change is required. 

Secondly, in relation to the other areas of concern I have outlined previously, the Union agreed that our concerns be responded to satisfactorily, including through the use of legally binding guarantees.  While the detail is yet to follow, our partners are clear about the nature of those guarantees.  The Union also agreed on the need to confirm the importance of issues such as workers’ rights.

On the basis of the agreement on these elements, and on condition of our being able to put appropriate guarantees in place, I said that I would be prepared to return to the public to put a new package and to seek their approval of it. 

This is a very significant outcome. 

I want to emphasise that considerable work lies ahead in relation to the responses to these concerns.  I want to emphasise too the nature of the agreement on the Commission because there was considerable confusion at the time of the referendum.  Maintaining one commissioner per Member State is not possible under the existing Treaty arrangements.  The Nice Treaty requires the size of the Commission to be reduced.  Only if Lisbon enters into force will Ireland, and each Member State, now keep a commissioner.  The conclusions agreed last week are very clear on this point.

Other Issues

While my focus and that of my delegation was necessarily on the Lisbon Treaty issue, other important issues were also discussed.

On the economic front, there has been extensive coverage of the ‘European Economic Recovery Plan’.  This represents a framework for Member States’ efforts and is designed to ensure consistency and maximum impact.  In Ireland’s case, we will be sustaining our capital spending at a level far above the historical norm – the immediate focus of our efforts must remain redressing the budgetary imbalance.

The Council agreed to take forward work on better global regulation of financial markets, better global governance, and ensuring that there is not a growth in protectionism at a time of economic stress. 

As a small exporting nation dependant on favourable international trading conditions, avoiding growth in protectionism is important for us.

Energy & Climate Change

The agreement by the European Council on the climate change and energy package is of huge importance.  It is a good outcome for the environment and for Ireland: a number of our key concerns were taken on board at a late stage of the negotiations.

I want to pay particular tribute to Minister Gormley and his officials for the excellent work they did in negotiations on this agreement. 

It represents a very significant step in the effort to forge a wider international agreement to tackle one of the greatest challenges of our age.

Nearly two years ago, under the leadership of Chancellor Merkel, Europe agreed to unilaterally reduce our emissions by 20 per cent compared to 1990.  Friday’s agreement under President Sarkozy’s watchful eye was, in effect, the setting down in detail of how that is to be done.   Ireland plays its full part in delivering on that.

The agreement represents the culmination of intensive and highly complex negotiations.  I know that there are many who had hoped for a more robust deal.  Ireland had supported the Presidency and the Commission in pushing for a package that was stronger than that finally agreed. 

But we must recognise that compromise was necessary. The compromises, with which some are unhappy, were necessary to ensure that agreement was reached. A failure to reach agreement last week would have represented a serious set back to the momentum which we must bring to the climate change negotiations.

Minister Gormley led the Irish delegation at the UN negotiations in Poznan while the European Council was underway.  We remained in close contact.  Ireland wants an acceleration of the international negotiations to agree a deal next year.  The EU’s leadership in that process is reinforced by last week’s deal. 

The reality for all countries is that if we are to make progress in tackling climate change, we have to make meaningful adjustments: there will inevitably be some change involved for all.

The agreement is testament again to Europe’s ability to keep working, however challenging that may be, until we reach agreement.  It may be slow, and at times, tortuous.  But it is the best way.  Indeed, it is the only way.

On climate change, Europe has now shown the way forward by setting down its approach in detail on how we will reach reductions of 20%.  If the rest of the world rises to the challenge, the Union is committed to step up its target to minus 30%.

Other Issues

The Council also adopted conclusions in a number of other areas including agriculture, external relations and security and defence policy.  The full text of the conclusions has been laid in the Oireachtas library.

In relation to the developments in Ireland in the pig-meat sector, at our request the Council agreed to invite the Commission to contribute to our efforts to support farmers and slaughterhouses.

We are following up with the Commission on this welcome development.  I want to record my appreciation to the Council, and to Commission President Barroso in particular, for their support and solidarity with us on this issue.


Ireland ’s Challenge on Europe

Ceann Comhairle, the extent of the challenge we are facing in terms of our future relationship with Europe can hardly be over-stated.

There will be much written, accurately and regrettably otherwise, about the agreement reached last Friday and indeed about what the Lisbon Treaty itself does and doesn’t do.  We must be careful not to lose sight of the wood for the trees. 

My view, and I believe it is one which is shared by the vast majority of Members of this House, is that our future must be within Europe.  Within Europe, we must be close to the centre, and not at the margins or with some semi detached status.  This has been the approach of Irish Governments of various hues for over thirty five years and it has served our country well.

That shared approach over a sustained period reflects the reality that our relationship with Europe and our European partners is a truly national issue and one which transcends party politics.  I wish to place on record my appreciation for the approach adopted by the opposition leaders with whom I have had discussions in recent days.  Whatever about our differences, I believe we share a view that our future in Europe is so important that it requires as strongly united a position as possible within this House.

Those who suggest that we can remain at the heart of Europe, while refusing to work with our fellow Member States who are convinced of the necessity for more efficient and effective institutions and a stronger EU voice internationally, are attempting to render a very great disservice to the public.

I want it to be understood also, should anyone be considering that another referendum creates a pressure point around which concessions might be leveraged from the Government in return for support, that no good can come of such an approach.  Advancing sectoral or narrow interests in such a way could, especially at this time, be very damaging for this country. 

Ceann Comhairle – these are difficult times on a variety of fronts.  Just as many of the challenges we face are international, so too must be the responses.  Ireland must face outwards, not inwards, in seeking to advance our interests and protect our people and the hard won improvements in living standards over the last decades. 

To serve our national interest requires us to play our full role within Europe.

Friday’s conclusions on the Lisbon Treaty move us further along the path of identifying a way forward which could gain the support of the Irish people and at the same time be acceptable to all our partners. I believe that the outcome of last week’s meeting augurs well.  I am confident that the Irish people’s concerns will be addressed satisfactorily. 

If we get a satisfactory outcome to the work I have described in the coming months, the Government will put the issue to another referendum.  Whether our future relationship with Europe will be based around Ireland playing a full and constructive role in the European Union, or otherwise, will ultimately be for the Irish people to decide.