I am delighted to accept this invitation and to speak to the Congress about the Lisbon Treaty.
As you all know we are coming close to a date for the Referendum on the Reform Treaty. I have not come here to advocate a yes or a no vote.
I am here to advocate that your members inform themselves on the facts of the debate at hand and use their vote. But I'll come back to that later.
One of the most important things that the USI can do is give young people the opportunity to discuss the European issues that concern us all, wherever we live, and the action citizens want the EU to take.
The Call for Action
Recent polls have shown that many Irish, and many citizens in other EU Member States, would like to see more EU action in certain areas:
• Climate change
• Energy supply and use
• Crime,terrorism andsecurity issues
• Globalisation and its impact onjobs
• Social issues includingmigration.
These challenges are all inter-linked, and they are global in scale.
These issues will be for your generation to solve and you will need the tools to tackle the issues at hand.
Ireland and the EU
Of course, the phenomenal economic progress that Ireland has made in recent years has a lot to do with national policies, and with peoples'ambition and drive. But I think that it is fair to say that EU membership over the past thirty-five years has helped a bit.
In 1973 Ireland exported €1,104 million of products principally to Britain. By 2007 this increased to €88 billion.
Ireland has received close to €58 billion in structural funding from the EU which has helped upgrade our infrastructure and develop new opportunities.
In 1973 a high unemployment rate meant many of your predecessors who graduated would emigrate never to return. With an unemployment rate of 4.3% we are the envy of the rest of Europe.
Membership of the EU has meant other tangible results for students. Irish students have benefited from the possibility of exchanges with other EU countries through the Erasmus programme. The EU has brought recognition of qualifications from across Europe and provided funds for research and development to our colleges.
We are now a model European country. Slovakia, Slovenia and Lithuania look to Ireland as an example of how the EU can work for them.
The Need for Reform
But (there's always a but) … in spite of our best efforts, the EU is not perfect. Almost by definition, its policies and decisions cannot be to everyone's liking because they are a compromise between the interests of 27 national governments and the whole range of political viewpoints.
Some EU policies need re-examining. And, of course, the EU's decision-making system needs modernising. You can't run a Union of 27with machinery designed for a Community of six. You can't meet the challenges of the 21st century using methods designed for the 1950s.
That's why we needed the Lisbon Treaty – the Reform Treaty. It is designed to make the EU more efficient, more transparent, more united on the world stage, more secure and – above all – more democratic.
The Facts of the Lisbon Treaty
You will be called upon to vote on this Treaty in a few months time – and today, I would like to make my own small contribution to the lively debate on it here. A factual contribution – because it is the facts that matter.
Both sides in the national debate have made various claims as to what the Treaty tries to achieve. As this debate gets more political and even personal, the facts can get lost in the war of words and enthusiasm.
I hope to set the record straight by clarifying the main points today.
So here goes.
1. First, the Lisbon Treaty will make the EU more democratic. How? In the first place, by giving more power to the people. For the first time, EU citizens will have the official right to petition the Commission to launch new initiatives. This puts real power in the hands of any citizen who can organise the support of just one million people in a significant number of EU countries. Think of the European Students Unions being able to come together and directly call on the Commission to take action!
2. The Lisbon Treaty also gives more power to members of national parliaments – including TDs and Senators in Ireland. They will have greater powers toc hallenge any Commission proposal they consider goes against the principle of subsidiarity.
3. The Treaty also gives more power to Parliamentarians. The directly elected European Parliament will increase its law-making powers, because "co-decision" will be extended into new policy areas. So European elections will become even more important in deciding the future direction of policy-making.
4. The Lisbon Treaty will extend the rights of EU citizens by making the EU a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights, and by giving legal force to the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. These include the right to life, to education, to freedom of thought, to equality before the law… and workers' rights such as the right of collective bargaining and collective action.
5. The Lisbon Treaty will make it easier for the EU to make policy in areas where the public wants us to intervene: e.g. in areas like climate change and energy security. For the first time, these will explicitly become matters of EU responsibility. EU countries will be able to get their collective act together in cutting greenhouse gas emissions – and in talking with one voice to Russia and our other suppliers of gas and oil.
6. With the Lisbon Treaty, the EU will be able to deliver results more effectively – not only on energy and climate change but in other key policy areas too – because it can take decisions more easily. This is because majority voting will become the general rule, rather than unanimity.
A Union of 27 countries can literally be paralysed by the unanimity requirement.
7. However, unanimity will still be required in fields such as taxation– a very sensitive matter for Ireland and other countries. In important areas of national sovereignty, the national veto will be kept.
8. The extension of majority voting into new areas will make Europe more secure – by enabling the EU to deal more efficiently with terrorism, cross-border crime, illegal immigration and human trafficking. But EU action on these matters will be taken under the democratic control of the European Parliament, which will take the decisions jointly with the Council of Ministers.
9. The Lisbon Treaty will make EU decision-making more transparent. The Council of Ministers will have to hold its meetings in public when enacting new EU policies or legislation.
I don't know whether these meetings will make exciting television – but at least any interested citizen will be able to watch his or her ownGovernment Minister takingEuropean decisions.
It will no longer be possible to portray "Brussels" as an alien monster grabbing power from national governments!
On the contrary, people will more clearly see and judge how different Ministers balance their national interests with the interests of the whole of Europe.
10. Also for the sake of efficiency, a President of the Council will be elected for up to five years. This will give the EU amore stable and visible system of leadership than presently.
11. The Lisbon Treaty will help the EU to act with greater unity on the world stage. The High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy will also be the European Commissioner for External Relations. This will make it easier to ensure that our aid, trade, development and other foreign policies all pull in the same direction.
12. Finally, the Lisbon Treaty ensures that defence remains a matter of national sovereignty, so that each Government is free to decide what forces, if any, it will commit to any particular operation. The Treaty will therefore not compromise Ireland's, Sweden's, Austria's or any other country's neutrality.
Clearly, we live in adangerous world, and EU governments see the need for a collective response to some security issues. For example, sending EU peace-keeping forces to some of the world's trouble spots.
Chad and Darfur are cases in point, and Ireland has – I believe – taken a very active and honourable role in this EU action.
But Ireland's Constitution states that it cannot join a common European defence arrangement unless it is approved by a separate referendum of the Irish people. So the bogeyman of a "militaristic EU" sweeping young Irish men and women off to war is a complete myth. Nothing in the Lisbon Treaty is going to touch the "triple lock" on the deployment of Irish peacekeepers.
Defining of National and European Competences
Far from paving the way for a "European superstate", this Treaty clearly delimits the powers and responsibilities of the European Union. It lays down that the EU has only those powers which its member states confer on it.
No-one nowadays, apart from a small minority of federalists, dreams of a "United States of Europe" – and the Lisbon Treaty certainly does not introduce one.
Of course, it's not the "perfect Treaty". But it does make the EU moreefficient, moretransparent, moresecure, moreunited on the world stage, and moredemocratic. It will enable the EU tofunction better now that its membership has expanded from 15 to27.
Like any democratically-governed system, what the EU does depends on who we all choose to represent us in its institutions: in the Parliament, at our European elections, at the Council by choosing our national governments, and through the Commissioners those national governments nominate. The real message of the reform Treaty is that the EU is what we make it.
When the time comes for the referendum on this Treaty, I sincerely hope the people of Ireland will vote on the basis offacts andknowledge – not on the basis of fear and ignorance.
I urge all of you, from all parts of the political spectrum, to continue fostering that debate in the run-up to the referendum – because debate is the lifeblood of democracy.
You are in a unique position to mobilise your members to participate and exercise their democratic duty.