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Health and Consumer Protection

Speeches Commissioner Byrne

Speech by David Byrne, European Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection : Europe - Looking back, moving forward - European Movement -Ireland, Dublin, 25 May 2001

Let me first say what a pleasure it is to be here this afternoon as your invited guest and speaker.

Firstly what I do want to do today is to share some of my own thoughts with you as to what Europe and the European Union are about. Of course no reflection on Europe at the moment would be complete without mentioning the Treaty of Nice, which I believe makes an important step towards righting the wrongs of the past and setting out a clear direction for the future.

So secondly I want to speak on the Treaty. Finally I will try to show how I believe my own Commissionership on health, consumer protection and food safety, touches every one of us. And makes a connection between the European idea and brings it down to a level that effects each and every citizen of Europe in a very real way, every day of our lives.

So first of all, we have to ask the question - What is Europe? Is Europe simply a geographical area - the ‘tip of Eurasia’ as the French poet and philosopher Paul Valéry described it? - Is it simply the landmass between Malaga and Malmo, Moscow and my own dear Monasterevan? To a geographer it is. But when ‘Europe’ is mentioned in other parts of today’s world it conjures up a different image, an image of the European Union.

But this in itself begs the question; what is this European Union? Is it simply an institution? Is it purely a formal assembly of 15 countries, working together for a common goal? - Well yes in part it is. Perhaps Europe is in the eye of the beholder. But whatever your eye sees. However you describe Europe, whether you take it to mean a geographical zone, an institutional innovation, a historical construct or a legislative process. I have always believed that above all the European Union ‘Is a Union of Peoples’.

Perhaps at the dawn of this new century, as the dark and violent shadows of the twentieth century subside, it may be useful to recall the commitment to building such a union of peoples, that motivated the founding fathers of the Union, and in particular men such Robert Schuman, Konrad Adenauer and Jean Monet.

For these men and their successors they managed to do what many great leaders - from as far back as the emperors of ancient Rome - had tried to do without success, to lay the foundations of a united Europe.

Instead of old re-activism of uniting national territories by force, we have a united Europe whose peoples were invited to freely partake in the pursuit of a common purpose and whose freedom was guaranteed by the rule of law.

They did it, not by setting out to conquer countries, to enslave people to their way of thinking. Rather they set out to create a new form of Union, a union of peoples whose diversity of cultures and languages, whose individuality and multiplicity are celebrated and nourished. In place of the old world of territory and invasion - a new world of movement without frontiers.

In times of peace it is easy to forget that peace is a new concept for Europe, a continent that has been ravaged by the atrocities of war since the dawn of time.

Earlier this month, on May 9 th, we celebrated the anniversary of Robert Schuman’s historic declaration, putting to the Federal Republic of Germany, and to the other European countries who so wished, the idea of creating a Community of pacific interests, doing so from amidst the rubble and despair of a devastated continent.

In doing so he extended a hand to yesterday’s enemies and erased the bitterness of war and the burden of the past. In addition, he set in motion a completely new process in international relations by proposing to old nations to recover together, by exercising jointly their sovereignty, the influence which each of them was incapable of exercising alone.

In my view the construction of the European project was the most significant undertaking of the 20 th century, driven by the resolve to establish between the peoples of Europe, the conditions for a lasting peace.

As we look back over the fifty years of progress towards European integration we can see just what a success the European Union has been. Countries that were once enemies, today share a common currency - the Euro - and manage their economic and commercial interests within the framework of joint institutions.

Neighbours, who fought for years in the mud and rubble of global wars for an inch of land, now work together and trade without frontiers. Peoples who for a century tried to batter each other into submission, now guarantee a continent wide rule of law within shared institutions.

These achievements have not occurred simply because of great ideals that the founding fathers aspired to, but because of the common values of democracy and human rights shared by all the peoples of Europe that have flourished in this historically unprecedented time.

It is imperative that this new time of peace for the European Union should not and can not be taken for granted. The tragic events of the past and the conflicts which still today undermine the Balkans are timely reminders that we still have much to achieve.

So where is the European Union of today in all of this?

The present European Commission is working hard to restore the integrity which has driven this process. With a view to reviving the dream of peace and prosperity of our predecessors.

We are currently seeking to enlarge the Union to the east and south. This is an ambitious project. One with some risks and some costs for sure. But one which provides an unprecedented historical opportunity to restore and reunite Europe to its peaceful and prosperous state.

If we do not take these risks, will our 370 million citizens thank us in a decade, or decades ahead for consigning our near neighbours to fend for themselves? Could we countenance the de facto erection of an economic Iron Curtain, by effectively denying the opportunity to those who are legitimately seeking a better way of doing things, a better way of life for their citizens?

While we have enjoyed not only economic prosperity in the last decades since our own entry into the European Union, we in the Union have enjoyed other freedoms. Freedoms of speech, of religious practice, of political beliefs. Free movement of goods, services, capital and peoples.

Yet our freedoms have flourished while our fellow Europeans in Eastern Europe’s were held hostage. As Arthur Miller described it "A theatre where no-one is allowed to walk out and everyone is forced to applause".

When I hear commentators speak of allowing the former Eastern block to ‘Enter’ the European Union, I believe that they are being slightly misleading. We should speak of allowing the current and indeed future candidate countries to ‘Re-enter’ Europe. To once more take their place as proud, modern, independent and free nations and peoples. Equals at the European table where decisions are made.

Many signal the fall of the Berlin wall as the end of the cold war, others the break up of the former Soviet Union. But surely we can only truly say that the cold war has been assigned to the pages of Europe’s troubled history when all the nations of Europe stand side by side as equals.

To once more re-light the lamps of Europe that Edward Grey saw extinguished as far back as 1914. To put it simply - to complete the reunification of a free democratic and prosperous Europe by peaceful means.

I firmly believe that we must now grasp the opportunity of true reunification and press ahead with a constructive enlargement project. To this end the Nice treaty is giving Ireland a unique and privileged opportunity to allow the Irish people to extend the hand of friendship to the peoples of Eastern and Central Europe. To bring them back within the fold of our shared future in a greater, wider and deeper European Union.

As the only Member State of the current European Union to hold a direct referendum of the people on the issues of the Nice treaty, the people of Ireland are speaking, not only for themselves, but also for all the citizens of Europe. We have an opportunity to give voice to the aspirations of so many who remained voiceless during the dark decades of Soviet oppression. As a nation which has relatively recently found its own true voice on the world stage, we should perhaps more fully than others, appreciate what this means.

Over the last number of weeks and months I have listened to many commentators speak on the Nice treaty. Again I fear that you may be worried as to the competition from the European Union, as once more a treaty sends large masses of the population into a state of catatonia, something I hope not to do to you this evening. But what exactly is the Nice treaty?

The current composition and operation of the European institutions and bodies were agreed in the 1950s, when the Union only had six members. The Union has since undergone four enlargements reaching its current size of 15 member states.

Yet, apart from the introduction of direct elections to the European Parliament in 1979, there has been no major reform of the institutions since the founding of the European Community. In all, 12 countries are currently negotiating accession to the European Union: Bulgaria, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia.

The Intergovernmental Conference, which ended with the Treaty of Nice, had to provide an answer to one crucial question.

How can Europe function effectively when the number of Member States almost doubles?

The Nice treaty set about a ‘house keeping’ exercise to ensure the efficient and progressive working of the European Union. It makes changes to the composition of the European Parliament. It proposes an alteration as to the future structure of the European Commission as well as to the functioning of the European Council and the European Judicial institutions.

It does not create a European Super State. It does not create a European army. What it does do, is make strives toward ensuring the peace and security of all its citizens.

Europe seeks to be in a better position to carry out its humanitarian and crisis management responsibilities as part of the international communities as set down by the Petersberg tasks. So that for example, in line, with our values of peace making and the rule of law we can put Gardai on the streets of Pristina to express in concrete terms our commitment to peace.

In my view the question of neutrality does not enter the equation when it comes to playing a role in peacekeeping and reconstruction such as after the terrible events in the Balkans over the past decade. As it has never been questioned in other regions such as the Lebanon and the Congo.

It can no longer be justified to have an impotent Europe that has no capacity to provide humanitarian assistance for a crisis on the European Union’s own doorstep.

I certainly hope that the Irish People will endorse the continuance of Ireland’s proud and valuable tradition in peacekeeping.

As part of my responsibilities for food safety, I have visited many of the applicant countries over the past year. A constant theme I have heard in these countries is how much they admire what Ireland has achieved thanks to its membership of the EU.

To be able to replicate Ireland’s success is the dream of the countries that now ant to join the EU. We are the model, the standard they want to attain. They are looking to us to help them in the road to economic and social success. The message that the Irish people will be sending out on 7 June by voting yes will be seen as endorsing the aspirations of those millions of people who want to regain their place in the Europe we have created.

There has been much misinformation, put about by those opposed to the EU, to the effect that the Nice Treaty is not needed to allow enlargement to take place. This is totally and utterly false. Without the ratification of Nice there will be no enlargement.

It is important to recall that without Nice we will have no measures to allow the new members to vote in the Council, to elect members to the European Parliament and to take their seats in the Commission.

Without Nice, the enlargement process will be stalled and we will face a crisis in our relations with the applicant countries. I feel confident that the Irish people will not allow this to happen. But to pretend, as some have, that the Nice treaty is irrelevant to enlargement, can be considered dangerously misleading.

Another theme that has featured in the debate on Nice has been the respective powers of large and small nations. It has been claimed that Nice will reduce the influence of smaller nations. Again this is a misrepresentation of what is really happening.

Nice provides the necessary changes to allow enlargement. As I mentioned earlier it sets out the votes in the Council and Parliament that each country will have after enlargement. Inevitably there have to be changes in the existing distribution of representation. This is not, though, to the exclusive benefit of the larger Member States.

As has been a constant feature of our European model there are checks and balances to ensure that there can be no undue dominance by any single or grouping of Member States.

It is worth recalling that the larger Member States are about to give up one of the two Commissioners they currently have. Since its creation the Commission has been composed of two representatives nominated by each of the larger countries as against one by the smaller ones.

Yet the Commission has been able to exercise its responsibilities in such a way that it is seen by all observers as the best safeguard of the interests of smaller countries.

Some commentators have made much out of the fact that one day Ireland may not have a representative in the Commission. That day is a long way off and much water will go under the bridge before then.

What Nice provides is that the number of Commissioners is reviewed when there are twenty seven member states. Even on optimistic scenarios this is going to take some time. Nevertheless it is clearly written into the Nice treaty that if this happens then any rotation system applies to all Member states equally. There are no advantages given to the large over the small in that respect.

In the Council of Ministers, the votes attributed to each Member State have been realigned. Yet Germany with over 20 times our population has only 4 times Ireland’s number of votes.

Let me add that in arriving at a qualified majority decision in the Council that there not only must be at least 169 votes in favour of a proposal but this 169 votes must represent 2/3rds of the Member States. In addition it should represent at least 62% of the population of the EU. By any standards this is a very democratic way of arriving at decisions.

Let me add a personal reflection on how the Council operates. For my sins I attend three different Council of Ministers meetings-Agriculture, Public Health and Inter Market.

This has given me a privileged insight in to the workings of the Council. I have never seen any issue been discussed and decided where there were clear divides based on the size of Member States. It simply does not work like this.

So the question of the large ganging up on the small does not happen in practice and cannot happen because of the unique way voting takes place in the Council.

All in all Nice is a treaty which will ensure that Ireland continues to play its full role in the EU process and thereby enable us to reap further benefits from our membership.

And of course there is the economic story. When Taoiseach Jack Lynch brought Ireland into the European Union in 1973 we had high unemployment, high emigration, low wages and a weak economy. Our young people were not assured a job when they left school. Few could afford the costs of third level education and the boat to England was the fate awaiting many of our brightest and best.

One need look no further than the Dublin skyline dotted with cranes as a symbol of our new found prosperity. You never know O’Connell Street may yet be the new Champs-Elysees.

Ireland has benefited hugely from its membership of the European Union, through its careful and considered use of structural funds. Through its membership of the Common Agricultural Policy. Through the opening up of its economy to the wider market that the European Union provided for its goods and services.

Yet no one would argue that Germany or France has suffered as a result of joining forces with a poor Ireland in 1973.

The benefits of the European Union are not zero sum.

Enlargement will not remove or lessen the benefits of Union membership to Ireland or any of the other current members, but rather extend the collective benefits of the European Union to all members, both old and new. Ireland will remain a central player in a wider, more stable and more prosperous Union. A Union more capable of expressing peaceful values to its neighbouring regions and embodying the values of its citizens on a world stage.

I would like to take a few moments of your time, to talk about the future. In particular the reflection now taking place on the future structure of decision making in the EU. The current buzz word in Brussels speak is ‘governance’ which can be roughly described as how we take decisions, the consultation process involved and at what level should those decisions be taken.

As the EU grows larger there is a crying need to make the decision formulation process more open and inclusive. It is also vital that we reach an understanding on the type of decisions that are taken at EU level and what decisions are best left for national and regional governments to take. This means we need to reflect on what type of EU structure we want for the future.

As the EU has grown and peace has been the norm in Europe there is no longer the same idealistic approach to the EU that existed in the past. It is becoming harder to interest the general public across Europe in European issues.

Yet if we are to have a meaningful debate on issues such as governance then we need to involve the wider public in this debate now.

In the past Inter Governmental Treaties were negotiated often without any real public input. This must change.

In the run up to the next IGC we have to start a process that allows widespread discussion on the issues that may figure on the agenda. The members of this Council will have a key role to play in fostering and informing these debates. I hope you will give me the opportunity to take part as well. I believe it is vital that we bring our unique experience to this debate.

Nice is of paramount importance for one final reason. It sets out the need for a major public debate on the future of Europe. To renew a sense of ownership about Europe by its citizens. To restore a Europe based on the ideals and principles that were first laid down by the founding fathers. This debate must actively involve not just EU governments, but the Candidate countries and all stakeholders, including regions, local institutions and civil society. The debate must be shaped around many of the issues I have already spoken to you about; issues of diversity and common understandings; difference and shared values; equity and fairness; identity and interdependence; prosperity and solidarity.

The Irish people’s referendum on the Nice Treaty is at the very heart of this pivotal process.

I said in the opening of my speech, that my own role as Commissioner for Health, and Consumer Protection is one that touches the citizens of Europe in a very fundamental way, every day.

It addresses the concerns that European citizens hold in their daily lives.

It brings the series of Treaties, Directives and Regulations into peoples’ homes. Similar to the way in which environmental considerations have become standard reflexes of the body politic over the last twenty years - so public health, and food safety issues are fast becoming embedded in the consciousness of today’s decision makers.

The current Commission has constantly placed the citizen at the core of its work. And as such I suppose, in a way, that Food Safety has become a litmus test for confidence in Europe and its institutions.

The White Paper on food safety, which I launched in January 2000 had the aim of establishing an efficient and credible food safety system at an EU level. The proposals, which it contained, provide a proactive basis for Europe to protect public health and promote best practice in the food chain.

Final preparations for the new European Food Authority are currently being made. This new body will aim to restore and retain public confidence in the scientific basis of EU Food Safety Policy. It will ensure that European decision-makers are provided with independent scientific advice and leading edge scientific risk assessment. It will provide badly needed information to citizens about food related threats to public health during emergencies. The recent FMD crisis has once again brought the need for such an authority closer to all of us.

In the area of Public Health, my new Health Programme aims to provide information to practitioners and citizens alike to allow them to develop their understanding of health related issues and make informed choices based up this information.

It intends to create a rapid reaction capacity to deal with infectious diseases that are proving an increasing threat in an increasingly mobile world. It will bring together health workers across Europe who fight daily against major health problems, by tackling issues ranging form tobacco control to creating good mental health.

It will make sure that the health concerns of citizens are placed at the top of the list when legislation is being drafted at a European level. For now our quality of life is almost as important as our quantity of rights.

This afternoon I hope I have given you some of my views on how far we have come in the European Project. How far we have come in terms of economic and monetary union, where we stand on issues of solidarity and of social inclusion, but more importantly how far we have come together from seeing the Union as a union of states to a union of peoples. But not only how far we have come but how far we have yet to go to share this rich heritage with our neighbours in Central and Eastern Europe.

I think that it is only fitting that I leave you this evening with a passage from the Memoirs of Jean Monet:

‘We cannot stop, when the whole world around us in on the move. Have I said clearly enough that the Community we have created is not an end in itself? It is a process of change, continuing that process which in an earlier period of history produced our national forms of life. Like our provinces in the past, our nations today must learn today to live together under common rules and institutions freely arrived at. The sovereign nations of the past can no longer solve the problems of the present; they cannot ensure their own progress or control their own future. And the Community itself is only a stage on the way to the organised world of the future.’


Speeches Commissioner Byrne



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