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President of the European Commission
National Forum on Europe speech
Thank you for inviting me to speak to the National Forum on Europe. I have good memories of my previous visit. This body plays an important role in informing the Irish people about the European Union and I want to congratulate you for your tireless efforts in getting clear, factual information out to all parts of Ireland. In the run up to the referendum on 12 June, it is more important than ever to inform people about what is – and what is not – in the Lisbon Treaty.
I have not come here to try to tell people how to vote. I have come here to do two things:
When I was growing up in Portugal, under dictatorship, what is now the European Union represented many of the things that the young aspire to – peace, freedom, economic and social progress and the idea that working together across borders is possible.
Today, more than ever, I see the EU as a force for peace and good in the world. The EU is the world's biggest donor of development aid. We are involved in peacekeeping operations in many parts of the world. In many of these operations, Irish nationals have served with distinction – in Bosnia, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, in Sudan and now in Chad where Ireland is the second largest contributor to an EU mission. We are leading the world in the fight against climate change. Around the world, more and more countries seek to emulate the European model of economic growth, with high standards of social and environmental protection. They admire our deliberate focus on increasing standards of living across all of Europe's regions.
As President of the Commission, I am reminded on a daily basis of why we need the EU to work well and to deliver for its citizens.
Globalisation is one of the defining influences of our times. I believe it is a positive force for change and for empowerment. It brings new opportunities for millions round the world. But it also brings fears. The pace of change is much faster than ever before. Jobs and skills can quickly become obsolete and there are concerns that Europe's high social standards will be under threat. These worries must be taken seriously and addressed.
The EU has been one of the big winners from the open world trading system that developed after the Second World War. And Ireland has been among the most successful of the winners, building its current prosperity on attracting inward investment, investing in a well-educated, skilled labour force and a strong system of social partnership.
The current EU agenda mirrors the Irish approach in many respects – a clear case of how smaller Member States can shape the agenda and "punch above their weight". When I was Prime Minister of Portugal, I looked very closely at the Irish model to see what we could learn. You are certainly aware that many of our newer Member States look to Ireland for a lead on how to get the most out of their EU membership.
And closer to home, the new devolved administration in Northern Ireland is looking south to try to figure out just how Ireland managed to do so well out of the opportunities the EU offers! Following a visit I made to Belfast last year, the Commission has set up a Task Force on Northern Ireland to give them an extra helping hand. I appreciate the support that we have had in this work from the Irish government and civil service. The first report of the Task Force was well received when Commissioner Hubner presented it in Belfast earlier this week.
Equipping Europeans to face globalisation with confidence is one of the key messages of this Commission. We have put growth and jobs at the heart of our policy agenda. We are building a knowledge economy, emphasising the role of R&D and the links between it, education and innovation. This goes hand in hand with a modern social agenda, based on providing access, opportunity and solidarity so that no one is left behind. We are promoting a new approach to flexicurity so that, when they need it, people can be supported to move out of jobs that do not have a future and be helped to train for those that do. I am pleased to say that our approach has the backing of the social partners at EU level.
Many of the challenges on the EU agenda today are long-term challenges that go beyond the ability of any of our Member States to tackle on their own. Demographic change is shaping a new social reality in Europe, calling for the modernisation of our social policies. All of our countries are facing what is a relatively new challenge for Ireland – migration. As you have seen, migration can bring very positive benefits. Ireland has benefitted not only from mobility of labour between Member States but also from further afield. However, there is a need to manage migratory flows from outside the EU for political, social and economic reasons. This can be done more effectively through certain common policies at EU level.
I have already mentioned climate change. In moving Europe to a low carbon future, we are on the brink of a new industrial revolution. Changing the way we produce and consume will create major new opportunities for jobs and innovative technologies, here in Europe and across the world.
So, if we already have an ambitious agenda, delivering results for our citizens, why do I believe that we need a new Treaty?
Essentially for three reasons:
The Lisbon Treaty, if ratified, will bring several changes to make the EU more efficient and effective. The European Council, which sets the main policy directions for the EU, will have a President. This new post will help to ensure continuity between meetings. Continuity is particularly important when you think of the long term challenges facing us. Our present system of rotating Presidencies that change every six months cannot do this.
We will have more qualified majority voting, which should help to speed up decisionmaking. However, here in Ireland, knowing that taxation is a sensitive issue, I would like to underline the fact that the Lisbon Treaty does not change the rules on taxation. They remain subject to unanimity, giving each Member State a veto. Nothing can be agreed on taxation issues without Ireland's consent and nothing can be imposed on Ireland.
Making the Union more accountable to citizens is another key feature of the Treaty. I reject the idea that "Brussels" is some kind of superstate, taking decisions behind closed doors, very far away from "the people". We hold more public consultations than ever before so that people can be involved and make their views known.
Two years ago, I decided that the Commission would send all of its proposals to national parliaments and invite comments. My main aim was to try to get debate going at national level on what is being discussed at EU level. I have been very pleased with the result – so far, we have had over 200 opinions from almost 30 different national parliament chambers. Here in Ireland two Joint Committees of the Parliament, the Committee on European Affairs and the Committee on EU Scrutiny, have been very active in EU matters. They have contributed several very helpful opinions on issues such as our social reality stocktaking, on the EU framework decision on the fight against terrorism, on obesity, on climate change as well as on better regulation.
Once the Lisbon Treaty is in force, national parliaments will have the right to challenge Commission proposals on the grounds that they do not respect subsidiarity. Of course, the Commission is very respectful of the rights of Member States and conscious of the limits of our powers so we will try not to give them grounds to object!
The European Parliament will see its role and powers strengthened under the new Treaty. There will also be a possibility for "people power" in the form of a citizen's initiative whereby one million people can ask the Commission to take action in areas of concern to them.
The third area I want to highlight is external policy. The new Treaty will greatly simplify the voice and even the face of the EU for the rest of the world. We have to admit that our current arrangements are complicated – for example, since he came to power in 2000, President Putin has been faced with no less than 16 different Presidencies representing the EU – and two Commission Presidents. Such a rapidly changing gallery makes it difficult to stick to a coherent, longterm message. Under the new Treaty, the Presidents of the European Council and the Commission will represent the EU externally, with the support of the new High Representative who will, at the same time, be a Vice President of the Commission. This streamlining will give us a more effective voice internationally. We will be able to build up longer lasting relationships with key partners and to press Europe's point of view on an ongoing basis. For me, this enhanced ability to promote Europe's values and interests round the world is one of the major benefits of the Lisbon Treaty. We need this now if we are to be able to tackle the challenge of globalisation and make sure that it is positive for Europeans.
Having set out the reasons why I think Europe needs this Treaty, let me also comment – as an interested outsider – on some of the concerns that I understand are being expressed here in Ireland. Let me focus on three issues – taxation, neutrality and the "Irish model".
I have already said that the unanimity rule for taxation stays in the Lisbon Treaty. Following the debate in Ireland closely through the media, I see you have been having a lot of debate about the consolidated tax base (the CCCTB). This is an issue of interest to several Member States and is being studied by the Commission. It is a complex area so, before making any proposal, we would need to know what options exist and what implications any Commission proposals might have. No decision will be made on whether or not to present a proposal until we know all those implications. But one thing is already crystal clear – no Member State, either under the current rules or under the Lisbon Treaty, can be obliged to accept a tax proposal to which it objects.
A few moments ago, I reflected on the close match between the "Irish model" and today's EU agenda. Let me now refer to one specific aspect of your model – agriculture and rural development. I often think that the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) is much maligned, inside and outside the EU. Many of its detractors do not fully appreciate just how much it has changed, thanks to a process of reforms launched by Ray McSharry. I do not see the CAP as an old policy, to be phased out but rather as a successful one that offers great potential for the future, provided it continues to modernise. We want to promote strong rural communities and a vibrant rural economy. The Commission will be making its formal proposals for a "health check" on the CAP in May and I think they will fit comfortably with the changes that Ireland has been making in your agriculture policy.
We will continue to work for a WTO agreement that is in Europe's interests. At this time of instability in global financial markets, a breakthrough in the Doha negotiations would give a needed boost to global economic confidence. A balanced deal will bring huge benefits to Europe in the area of goods and services and ensure that we deliver on our commitment to giving the developing countries a greater stake in the international trading system. In the agricultural negotiations, we will stick to our mandate and within the 2003 CAP reform. I know that there are particular concerns in the farming sector and that, if we reach agreement, Ireland, like others, will have to focus more on the market and on high quality food production. But this should not be too big a challenge for you, with your extensive grassland production. We are working hard in the negotiations to minimise the impact on Ireland and I believe that Ireland is already well positioned in the quality end of the beef market. Even more importantly, a WTO deal this year will bind in our 2003 CAP reform to the WTO and provide a stable framework for international agricultural trade for a decade. We then can address future CAP reform free from external pressure. This is a big prize for the agricultural community.
The Lisbon Treaty will make some changes in the way the EU deals with defence and security issues. But I can categorically state that there is nothing in the new Treaty that will affect Ireland's tradition of military neutrality. Here too unanimity will continue to be the rule and each Member State retains a veto over proposals or crisis management missions. In fact, the Treaty explicitly says that the policy of the Union on these matters "shall not prejudice the specific character of the security and defence policy of certain Member States", so Ireland's distinctive national position is fully protected.
Ireland is the only Member State holding a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty. This means the eyes of Europe, if not the world, will be on you in the run up to 12 June. Speaking in Dublin over forty years ago, President Kennedy quoted an Irish poet, AE, George William Russell, and said "I believe profoundly... in the future of Ireland... that this is an isle of destiny, that that destiny will be glorious... and that when our hour is come, we will have something to give to the world." President Kennedy went on to say that "Ireland's hour has come. You have something to give to the world--and that is a future of peace with freedom. "
In a different context, in a country which is far more secure, more prosperous and more confident than the one that Kennedy addressed, I echo his words. On 12 June, the Irish people will be sending a message to the rest of Europe, and the wider world. I hope it will be one that says you want a more efficient, effective and accountable Europe. That you want to see the EU play its unique role in helping to spread peace, progress and responsibility round the world. That Ireland wants to continue to be at the heart of an open Europe and to bring its unique contribution to all of the fora where decisions are taken. This is an individual choice. Whatever your views, I hope that you will exercise your right to make them heard through the democratic legitimacy of the ballot box.
I made my choice long ago and every new development in the EU confirms to me that I made the right one. Now it's up to you!
Go raibh mile maith agaibh.