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Priority Questions. - Declaration on Neutrality.

Wednesday, 27 March 2002

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 551 No. 3

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 23. Mr. J. O'Keeffe Information on Jim O'Keeffe Zoom on Jim O'Keeffe  asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs Information on Brian Cowen Zoom on Brian Cowen  if he will provide a draft of the declaration confirming that Ireland's policy of military neutrality is not affected by European treaties mentioned at the Barcelona European Council as being sought by the Government. [10346/02]

Minister for Foreign Affairs (Mr. Cowen): Information on Brian Cowen Zoom on Brian Cowen The Taoiseach has provided this House with a comprehensive account of the context in which this issue arose at the Barcelona European Council meeting.

In summary, and in the context of the Government's commitment to EU enlargement and to the ratification of the Nice treaty by the end of the year, the Taoiseach signalled to his European counterparts that the Government would seek a declaration from the Seville European Council which will confirm that Ireland's policy of military neutrality is not affected by the treaties.

Our EU partners responded positively to the Taoiseach's statement. The conclusions of the European Council welcomed the approach outlined and reiterated the Council's willingness to contribute in every possible way to supporting the Government. Work will proceed on the drafting of a declaration with a view to consideration by the incoming Government.

I echo the Taoiseach's statement that the declaration forms only part of the Government's overall strategy towards addressing the factors which lay behind the defeat of the Nice treaty referendum. Steps have also been taken to provide for better Oireachtas scrutiny of EU matters and, through the Forum on Europe, to have a national debate on: “issues relevant to Ireland's membership of an enlarging Union and to consider the range of topics arising in the context of the debate on the Future of Europe.”

Mr. J. O'Keeffe: Information on Jim O'Keeffe Zoom on Jim O'Keeffe As the Minister said, we have already spoken about the Nice treaty. The Minister should be specific on a number of issues. Is it the right approach to go off to Barcelona and talk about a draft that has not even been discussed here or seen by the Committee on European Affairs? Does he accept that there is a need to underpin measures for the draft? These should not be written off as unnecessary in the same way the draft was by some people when I proposed it last October. We are dealing with perceptions [627] here and from that point of view does he not see the need for underpinning measures like an amendment to the Defence Act?

Does the Minister not accept that the procedures in relation to the democratic deficit and the use of the committees should now be in place? They are not in place and the extra resources needed are not in place. Is it correct that the Minister for Finance has drawn a line and refused to make any extra resources available? The committees could have been beefed up in the meantime and could be seen as operational. Does the Minister not see my frustration on this issue? I want to see these changes in place and working when we go to the people in the autumn. I hope the Government will be led by Fine Gael, but we will support the next referendum even if we are not in power. Would we not have a much better chance of success if we went to the people with the package in place and fully operational, having being discussed and debated? The delays in the Government's approach mean that too much is being left to chance.

Mr. Cowen: Information on Brian Cowen Zoom on Brian Cowen There is no question of the Taoiseach referring to a draft at the European Council in Barcelona. He set out his thinking and the Government's approach so he could obtain a broad measure of agreement from his counterparts before proceeding along the lines indicated. It was a prudent, proper and correct course of action. While some preliminary work has been done, as the Taoiseach said, the process needs to be taken further. The chairman of the forum provided useful guidance on future work on the declaration in his summing up last Thursday. It is not correct to suggest that the Taoiseach went to Barcelona with a draft which had not been referred to the Dáil. He explained his broad approach and sought approval and consensus among the Heads of Government so he could proceed with an agreed approach with the full support of the European Council in Seville in June.

It has been agreed among the Whips that the new committee arrangements should be in place when the new Dáil convenes after the general election. This is a sensible proposal, as we know what the new arrangements are and will be ready to implement them a few weeks after the election. The detailed work of the Whips needs to be acknowledged and it is good that there is broad recognition among Members of the need to improve working arrangements and increase public awareness and ownership of parliamentary proceedings. The question of proper committee scrutiny of European Union matters is important in the context of the overall Oireachtas reform package. Certain decisions on reform which have been taken will be implemented when the House reconvenes.

It is not a contentious or party political point to say that we are all anxious to monitor and prioritise the work of the EU. Committees need to be properly informed by Departments when [628] proposals emanate from the European Commission, Council or Parliament on issues which have a direct bearing on or relevance to this country. The timescale of a measure can vary depending on its subject matter. We will be able to monitor measures in a manner which compares favourably with arrangements in other EU parliaments, while not limiting the Executive's capacity to negotiate. The sensible, accountable and transparent arrangements which have been reached by the Whips will incorporate Union matters as an integral part of national debate, which is what is required. We can put the Treaty of Nice to the people before the end of the year with greater confidence if we have ensured that citizens recognise the day to day importance of European issues.

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