CHECK AGAINST DELIVERY
Statements in Seanad Éireann
on the Future of Europe
Helen McEntee T.D.
Minister for European Affairs
I wish to begin by thanking you and Senator Neale Richmond for inviting me to address the House today on the future of Europe.
I am a firm believer that National Parliaments contribute actively to the good functioning of the European Union.
The Lisbon Treaty includes provisions which encourage greater involvement by National Parliaments in the activities of the Union and enhances their ability to express their views on draft legislation emerging from the Union. Commission consultation documents, the Commission’s annual legislative programme and draft pieces of legislation are sent to National Parliaments at the same time as they are sent to the European Parliament and the Council. The Treaty allows National Parliaments to send reasoned opinions to the Presidents of the Parliament, the Council and the Commission on whether a draft piece of legislation complies with the principle of subsidiarity.
These are important provisions. They apply in equal measure to Seanad Éireann and Dáil Éireann, with each House entitled to avail of them in their own right. Representative democracy is at the heart of the European project and these new provisions were brought into domestic legislation here in Ireland by the European Union Act, 2009.
I believe these provisions enhance the right of every citizen to participate in the democratic life of the Union. We often think of Brussels, Luxembourg and Strasbourg when we think of the European Union because these are the cities where the various institutions have their seat. But Europe is not at all that remote since we are doing Europe’s business when we do business in this House or in the Parliament of any Member State across the Union.
That again is why the Union’s values – freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights – are so important. Without them the lives of millions of Europeans would be greatly diminished. Elsewhere in the world, many people know what it is when only lip service is paid to these values. They understand the cost in terms of the quality of their lives and, increasingly, they look to Europe as a place where Europe’s value-based approach to the issues of the day – climate change, globalisation and social progress – makes a real, and often enviable, difference.
When the leaders of the EU27 met in Bratislava last year, just after the referendum in the UK, their immediate focus was on meeting the expectations of citizens and on re-committing to our core values. Citizens and values were at the heart of their preoccupations for the future of Europe. They said:
“The EU is not perfect but it is the best instrument we have for addressing the new challenges we are facing. We need the EU not only to guarantee peace and democracy but also the security of our people. We need the EU to serve better their needs and wishes to live, study, work, move and prosper freely across our continent and benefit from the rich European cultural heritage.”
There has been broad agreement across the Member States that, at this stage in its development, that Union needs to focus on outcomes, rather than just institutions. Across the Member States the fundamental importance of the European Union in dealing with the issues affecting us is also recognised. When the leaders of the EU27 met again, earlier this year in Rome, they said they:
“ … want a Union that is safe and secure, prosperous, competitive, sustainable and socially responsible, and with the will and capacity of playing a key role in the world and of shaping globalisation.”
I am particularly pleased that the Joint Oireachtas Committee on European Affairs is paying such close attention to this process. The Committee has launched a consultation process on the future of Europe and I would like to take this opportunity to encourage all interested groups and individuals to make their submissions before the closing date on Friday, 20 October. The Committee has already heard from the National Youth Council of Ireland, the Irish Creamery Milk Suppliers Association, Macra Na Feirme, IBEC and the European Movement Ireland and I look forward to reading the Committee’s completed report soon.
The Committee’s consultation process and today’s debate here in the Seanad are excellent examples of how National Parliaments can contribute to the better functioning of the European Union.
The emphasis we share on citizens is at the heart of the European Commission’s White Paper on the future of Europe and in the five reflection papers the Commission has produced in the meantime. The White Paper sets out five scenarios for the future of Europe ranging from simply carrying on to being more ambitious and doing much more together.
The Reflection Papers are wide-ranging and, again, they provide a set of options. They deal with:
Our starting point in discussions on these issues has been to focus on the needs and concerns of our citizens. This includes a focus on jobs and growth, opportunities for our young people, completion of the single market and the key role of the EU in meeting the challenges of today’s globalised world, from climate change to combatting international terrorism.
As many members of the House will have noticed, the President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, gave his State of the Union address to the European Parliament last month and later the President of the French Republic, Emmanuelle Macron, launched his own initiatives on Europe. Both speeches added a new impetus to the future of Europe process which began at the Bratislava Summit in September of last year. But it is important to put these speeches in context. Each is a contribution to the debate and there are 27 Member States, each with its own voice and with its own perspective on what should work for the Union as a whole.
The future of Europe was discussed informally by EU Heads of State and Government at a summit in Tallinn at the end of September. The Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar T.D., spoke for Ireland and it was agreed that the President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, would consult bilaterally with Member States in terms of substance and process and continue the discussion at the next European Council next week. In Tallinn it was noticeable that many Member States, including Ireland, took an approach rooted in the path set out by the Heads of State and Government in Bratislava and Rome, focussed on delivering for citizens.
I am preparing a series of public engagements which will help feed into Ireland’s contribution to this debate. Without pre-empting that debate, I believe our thinking should reflect Ireland’s priorities. I do not want to be exhaustive on this but our priorities should include:
What we need above all is an honest and fair debate; one that confronts the myths about the European Union and one that is calm, considered and inclusive. This is how we will formulate a contribution that reflects the concerns and expectations of the Irish people.
I look forward, therefore, to hearing your ideas and comments today and thank you once again for this opportunity to engage with the House on a matter is significant national importance.