Last week the Taoiseach and I met for two days with EU leaders in Brussels. We discussed a series of highly significant issues for Galway, for Ireland and the European Union. These included climate change, an EU-wide economic stimulus package worth some €200 billion and the future of the Lisbon Treaty.
On the Lisbon Treaty issue, our referendum result of last June means that as things stand Ireland cannot ratify the Treaty. Twenty-three Member States of the EU have already approved the Lisbon Treaty and the other three countries are likely to do so over the coming months.
This poses a difficulty for Ireland, as we want to remain fully part of the EU. This means that it is not good for us to be isolated from our 26 European neighbours by being unable to reach agreement with them on the Lisbon Treaty.
Since our referendum six months ago, everything the Government has done has been driven by a determination to fully respect the will of the Irish people. The Government set out to understand the referendum result by carrying our detailed research into public attitudes. We also worked with all the political parties in setting up a special all party Oireachtas Committee on Ireland’s future in the European Union. The committee listened to over 80 groups.
What is clear from the analysis and from the hearings of the Committee is that voters in Galway and throughout the country want Ireland to remain at the centre of the European Union, and have a positive attitude towards the EU and the positive impact it has had on everyday life in our communities.
At the same time, we have been working closely with our European partners. These efforts produced an important agreement in Brussels last week. What exactly did we achieve?
First, we came away from Brussels with an agreement that, if the Lisbon Treaty is accepted, Ireland will continue to have a member of the European Commission. Under the current Treaties, Ireland could well lose its Commissioner in less than a year from now.
The agreement on retaining an Irish Commissioner was a significant win for Ireland. It responds to the wishes of the electorate, many of whom were worried about the prospect of Ireland not being represented on the Commission in the future. This issue has now been settled to our satisfaction.
Second, there is now agreement at EU level that we will be offered full legal guarantees with regard to taxation, Ireland’s traditional policy of military neutrality and the provisions of our Constitution concerning the right to life, education and the family. The Summit also confirmed the high importance attached by the EU to issues such as workers’ rights.
Much detailed work will need to be done in the coming months on the precise form and content of these legal guarantees, which are to be given full Treaty status.
Only if these guarantees are fully satisfactory to Ireland will the Government seek to put the Treaty to the people again, adjusted in Ireland’s case by the adjustments made in response to our people’s concerns.
If Ireland gets the concessions required, it makes perfect sense for us to consult the people again.This will provide people from Galway with an opportunity to judge the changes we have negotiated since June which will be a “new package”.
We can then decide if we want to join the other 26 EU members in moving forward together under the Lisbon Treaty and being at the heart of Europe. This will enable the EU to combine all our efforts in dealing with the unprecedented economic crisis we all now face. In these exceptional times of economic difficulty, there is strength in numbers.