Vice-President of the European Commission
Ireland's future in the European Union
Opening remarks at the Oireachtas Sub-Committee in Ireland
I am delighted to have been invited to the special sub-Committee today. Much has changed since I spoke to your joint European Affairs Committee in February and not just because of the referendum result in Ireland. We have been facing new challenges, from dealing with the security problems in the Caucasus to finding a response to the financial crisis, the full force of which hit all of us this autumn.
Today, in this new context, I want to make a few remarks on three questions: why I still believe that we all need the new Treaty, why I think that the referendum result was an answer but not a solution, and why we must work together to find a constructive way forward.
In my discussions with friends, colleagues and parliamentarians across Europe, whether in France or Lithuania, their reaction to the referendum has been one of puzzlement and surprise. Why would the Irish reject a Treaty that is focused on improving the democracy and efficiency of EU decision-making?
The Irish are known as committed Europeans: even your proclamation in 1916 referred to "gallant allies in Europe". Ireland has been the role model for small European countries in the EU, especially in the new Member States. We have all admired the economic progress made by Ireland as an EU member, and you have shown how influential a small country can be on the policymaking of the Union. So why would a country whose past, present and future are so bound up with Europe be the one country to say no to a Treaty that would equip us all for the coming century?
I'm sure you are aware of the case for the new Treaty. For the record, Lisbon would give more of a say for national parliaments; openness in the Council, so that you know how your Ministers have voted; more laws passing through the elected European Parliament; and new forms of democracy, like the citizen's initiative where a million signatures requesting a change in EU law would have to be considered. This is the kind of democratic approach that people rightly expect of the EU, whose decisions have a direct impact on its citizens.
And it also makes sense to have an EU that is more efficient. A permanent President of the European Council, a clear division of roles in foreign policy, more majority voting would all make our enlarged EU of 27 Member States work better.
Of course we are not paralysed by not having the Treaty. We have been able to respond effectively to the crisis in Georgia, and we have so far shown the ability to take strong coordinated action over the financial crisis. But just because you can run with one arm tied behind your back doesn't mean it wouldn't be better to untie the arm. Most people see recent months as pointing to a need for "more Europe", not less. In these difficult times, we need to work together more closely, and the Treaty would help us do that.
I know that in the referendum a lot of fears were expressed. But in sensitive areas of national sovereignty such as taxation the national veto will be kept. And on defence policy, nothing in the Lisbon treaty is going to touch the triple lock on the deployment of Irish peacekeepers.
The Treaty also leaves open the possibility that the EU will choose to retain a Commissioner from every Member State – an option not possible under today's rules.
Without the Lisbon Treaty, EU action will be hamstrung by heavier procedures and less clarity about what we can or cannot do. That means a less effective response on issues our citizens care about like climate change and energy, on migration, or on combating organised crime and terrorism.
This is how the other Member States and parliaments across the EU look at the Treaty. 24 have now ratified. So I think you will understand why the Irish "no" is viewed with disappointment. It affects all Member States, who invested a lot of energy and political capital into what was a long and difficult negotiation. As I said, the Irish no is an answer, but not a solution. The disappointment across the Union could of course turn to frustration if a solution is not found within a reasonable time frame.
That is why there is a lot of interest in the work of this Committee. The rest of Europe is waiting patiently to know how we can build a solution. A solution with which we can all be satisfied – including Ireland. Nobody wants to see Ireland left out in the cold, and I have said publicly that other EU countries should give Ireland the necessary time to decide on the next steps and avoid putting unnecessary pressure on your government.
You hold the key to finding a solution for the whole of Europe. But finding it means defining where Ireland's misgivings lie. Your timetable, to conclude before the December Council, is an important signal that Ireland recognises the urgency, especially with the European elections on the horizon next June.
So how do I think we need to approach a solution? Well, one thing is clear: this is not something that can be settled only by diplomats or politicians. It needs the engagement of the Irish people: of the families who the polls show feel they had a lack of information and understanding about the Treaty; of the women and young people who the polls show felt alienated and unsure; of the socially excluded, who felt that they didn't have enough of a stake in change.
In the absence of clear information and communication, such fears and concerns can only grow. So I am convinced that reaching a solution must involve better communication on Europe. This means learning the lessons – reaching out to a wider audience, using different media like the internet. We will only identify what needs to be done if we are able to listen and respond to people's concerns.
Ever since the no votes on the Constitution in France and the Netherlands in 2005, the Commission has been looking at how communication on Europe could be improved. Modernising the Commission's approach has been a central part of my work during this period, and I think we have already come a long way.
But communication can never work top-down from Brussels. It must mean national and local authorities and stakeholders getting involved. It must mean a more imaginative approach. And it must mean listening, dialogue, not just providing a one-way traffic of information.
I hope that the work of this Committee will play an important part in stimulating such a debate on Europe and on the Treaty.
Thank you for giving me the chance to contribute through our discussion today.