Ireland and applicants need EU's foundation principles

Sat, Mar 25, 2000, 00:00

Our Baltic, Central and Eastern European and Mediterranean future partners are seeking to make the same reaffirmation of their identity as we did. We must welcome these states and regard them as exercising a right - a right to belong.

The Taoiseach, Mr Ahern, set out the Government's overall attitude to enlargement of the European Union and its consequences for Ireland in a thoughtful overview speech this week to the Institute of European Affairs.

It dealt with how Ireland joined Europe as well as the EEC in 1973, given the inevitable introversion of post-independence state-building, during which European links were lost sight of. He went on to describe how Ireland caught up institutionally, economically and socially with its neighbours over the next generation. This was accomplished not only by the CAP and transfers but through access to the Single Market, the adoption of competitiveness criteria and public financial management through the Maastricht criteria for monetary union, together with domestic social partnership.

Now that we are within sight of net contributor status and in the perspective of enlargement, Ireland's financial position and interests are changing profoundly. Relevant departments had been asked to report on the budgetary implications for Ireland.

But enlargement is not only a matter of money and resources, he insisted. It concerns the same legitimate aspirations and hopes for freedom, security and prosperity which prompted Ireland's membership and its right to belong in Europe.

We have certainly much to gain from and to learn about the accession states. Friendships made now will be repaid in years to come, especially because we share several major interests - Ireland is often seen by them as a model. They include the need to preserve the EU's fiscal capacity to enable these states benefit from transfers to assist their development.

It is also necessary to "ensure that the wonderfully innovative institutional structures, and the balances which they represent, are passed on to future generations", as Mr Ahern put it. This brought him to deal with the Inter-Governmental Conference currently under way. The Government's policy combines a strong commitment to those foundational principles with a cautious, step-by-step approach to changing the treaties.

The formal equality of its member-states irrespective of their power or wealth is one of these principles. So is their equal participation in its institutions, which gives the independent and supranational Commission sole power of legislative initiative and a special role as guardian of the common interest as expressed in the treaties. Such guarantees and safeguards have made qualified majority voting (QMV) in the Council of Ministers possible and democratically acceptable, especially for the smaller states.

Ireland shares an interest in preserving these principles with most of the applicants, which are medium-small, small or microstates. They are a source of legitimacy for their electorates as well. And they equally mark a decisive break from the balance of power systems which led to the two World Wars the EC/EU was expressly designed to break from because they marginalised the smaller states.

Were these principles to be fundamentally breached there is a danger of reverting to a system in which the influence of the smaller states would be reduced and the EU itself become vulnerable to rivalry among the larger ones.

Thus the so-called leftover issues from the Amsterdam Treaty - representation on the institutions, reweighting of votes and the extension of qualified majority voting - are not the dry legalistic questions implied by that term, but go to the heart of the EU's design and structure.

They are not simply technocratic ones concerning efficiency but political and constitutional ones concerning sovereignty and democratic legitimacy. Finding that balance between legitimacy and efficiency is the major task facing the IGC negotiators.

Mr Ahern therefore insists that Ireland must retain its seat on the Commission. He sees the possibility of some reweighting of votes if the larger states agree to give up one of their commissioners. It is important to avoid a confrontation between large and small states on this issue. Nonetheless, when it comes to changing the constitutional rules of the game, size definitely matters, although in normal EU business small state interests are just as diverse as large state ones.

Again, this is partly a function of the system's original design, so that the combined vote needed for a majority or a blocking minority automatically depended on a coalition of small and large states in the Council of Ministers. Mr Ahern is willing to examine extending the scope of QMV voting, but certainly not to areas such as taxation. He is cautious about extending the use of flexibility rules allowing a select group of states to proceed ahead of the others, for fear of upsetting the EU's coherence.

He is strongly against any fundamental review of the treaties and institutional relations. This would be very unwise, since the political will does not exist to address such questions and agree on them in the time span available, he believes.

He is decisively against introducing an Article V-type mutual defence guarantee clause into the EU, which would inevitably draw in a nuclear first-strike policy. Effectively he warned of a veto on any such proposal - a clear message to the forthcoming French EU presidency in the second half of this year.

All this is understandable, given the Government's clear desire to avoid a referendum on this treaty, especially on the defence issue. But it also puts it in the cautious camp at this IGC.

An argument can certainly be made that in order best to protect the interests of smaller states they should be willing to support proposals for deeper integration in order to preserve the EU's institutional balance. Mr Ahern is reluctant to support a programme of rolling reform, for fear of being bounced into issues such as defence and flexibility. But not to address the need to carry citizens along by using more radical or constitutional means to develop their interest and engagement also risks the loss of legitimacy.

This is all the more the case given the turn towards more inter-governmental methods in the security and defence domain, and in that of justice and home affairs, where the Commission has less of a role - a shortcoming it feels increasingly. Even if this IGC remains a limited agenda, it is likely that another one will be necessary in several years' time in order to come fully to terms with these profound changes.

These issues are examined further in a new online journal, Challenge Europe, available at http://www.theEPC.be