Taoiseach ‘open’ to EU treaty change to remove vetoes on enlargement and sanctions

Any treaty change on national vetoes would require a referendum in the Republic

Taoiseach Micheál Martin has said he is open to European Union treaty change on foot of proposals to overhaul the working of the union, signalling potential support for the removal of national vetoes on enlarging the bloc and sanctions.

“We are not closing the door against treaty change in the aftermath of the Conference on the Future of Europe,” the Taoiseach told reporters at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos on Wednesday. “I’m of the view that we should be very open to the discussion, and see how far we can go in respect of making Europe more efficient in terms of the conduct of its business.”

The Conference on the Future of Europe, a body spanning politicians to members of the public across the EU that had been debating EU reform since last year, recommended earlier this month that national vetoes in almost all areas of EU decision-making, including military and security matters, should be abolished. Any treaty change would require a referendum in the Republic.

The Taoiseach refused to say what his red-line areas would be. Irish governments have traditionally prized vetoes in areas such as defence and taxation.

However, Mr Martin specified that he was open to changing the way national vetoes can be used to stop the imposition of sanctions at a time when Hungary is holding up EU efforts to embargo Russian oil under a proposed sixth round of sanctions in response to the country’s invasion of Ukraine.

Still, the Taoiseach said the preferred EU approach is to build a consensus around proposals and that it is important to deal with specific issues that countries have, such as Hungary in the case of the Russian oil plan. He also indicated openness to changing veto rules on EU enlargement, adding that he is politically “on the side” of the need to be more proactive at adding members to the union, “particularly in the western Balkans and Ukraine”.

Mr Martin said earlier on Wednesday during a WEF panel discussion on European unity that it is “beyond comprehension” that Albania and North Macedonia’s attempts to start EU admission talks are being held up by the veto of a member state.

“We cannot complain about Russia’s geopolitical manipulation if we are not proactive enough in terms of dealing with that by promoting and supporting those who are of a European disposition in the neighbourhood countries” of the EU, Mr Martin said.

“If we are to enlarge, then there are obvious consequences, as we enlarge, in terms of governance mechanisms by which we take decisions,” he said. “Of course I understand that, and I think we have to move with that too.”

EU leaders last October restated a pledge first made almost two decades ago that six Balkan states – including Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Kosovo – will eventually have a place in the world’s largest bloc if they fulfil criteria on areas from judicial reform to economics. However, the path to two of the six, Albania and North Macedonia, is currently being blocked by a Bulgarian veto, amid a long-running dispute with North Macedonia over a shared history and language. Albania’s application to join the EU is officially coupled with its eastern neighbour.

Mr Martin said that both countries, who applied to join the EU well over a decade ago, “should be members by now” of the EU. Members of European parliament adopted two reports last week, urging EU leaders to start accession talks with Albania and North Macedonia against the backdrop of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Ukraine applied within days of the war to become a candidate for EU membership, in what is also likely to be a drawn-out process.

Meanwhile, the Taoiseach also said on the WEF panel that he “strongly agreed” with views offered by president of the European Parliament Roberta Metsola, who was also on the panel, that there can be no talk of offering Russian president Vladimir Put a “face-saving” way to end the war. It comes days after former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger said at the WEF that Ukraine should accept giving up part of its territory to reach a peace deal with Russia.

Mr Martin met Ukraine’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, in Davos on Wednesday as part of a series of bilateral meetings with political leaders. Mr Kuleba raised Ukraine’s desire to join the EU and Mr Martin reaffirmed the Irish Government’s support of the application, he said.