Agreement paves the way for a fresh look at the Lisbon Treaty


OPINION:Our European partners have made significant concessions in response to Irish concerns, writes MICHEÁL MARTIN

FRIDAY'S EU heads of government decision on the LisbonTreaty was a landmark day for Ireland in Europe and amounts to a very significant achievement for our country. The Taoiseach and I went to Brussels with a clear objective. We wanted to secure a positive response from our partners to the various concerns about the treaty that had shaped the outcome of our referendum.

I am happy to say that this objective was fully achieved.

After two days of intensive negotiations, we came back with an important outline agreement. When this is finalised and implemented, it will represent a major contribution to securing Ireland's position within the European Union. It will allow us to look again at the arguments for ratifying the Lisbon Treaty.

Anyone who values Ireland's membership of the EU, and the enormous benefits it has brought, ought to welcome the outcome of last week's summit. The manner in which the European Council responded to our requests highlights the union's profoundly democratic character.

It is a union that brings together diverse and proudly independent nations who freely co-operate in order to advance shared objectives. Whenever a member state has a difficulty, the union's approach is to rally round, show solidarity and look for solutions that all 27 countries can endorse. That is exactly what has happened in this case.

Twenty-three other member states have already fully ratified the treaty and have no difficulty with its provisions. The remaining countries are likely to ratify in the coming months, leaving Ireland in a potentially isolated position.

Some EU countries had their doubts about aspects of what we were seeking last week, but they were willing, when we explained our position, to make the effort to accommodate us by agreeing to the adjustments we sought.

In the wake of the June referendum, respect for the Irish people's democratic decision has been the Government's unswerving priority. It has guided all of our actions. In July, we set about identifying what it was that prompted the rejection of the treaty and seeing if those problems could be rectified.

The first step was to commission comprehensive, independent research into the result. This study provided rich insights into the Irish people's key concerns. It identified the factors that decided the referendum, which are at the heart of the agreement we reached in Brussels. The study pointed to the lack of user-friendly information as a serious barrier to the acceptability of the treaty. If it is to continue developing, the union must cease to be a hidden treasure and make its work better known by communicating more widely and more effectively.

In October, the Government worked with the other political parties to establish an Oireachtas Sub-Committee on Ireland's Future in the European Union, which began an unprecedented exploration of Ireland's EU membership. Its impressive report, based on contributions by more than 100 expert witnesses, helped inform the Government's approach to the EU summit.

Since the referendum, the Government has worked actively with the other member states, and especially the French presidency, in an effort to find a solution that all 27 member states could endorse. We went into last week's meeting of EU leaders determined to obtain satisfaction on a number of points.

Our first aim was to pave the way for the retention of an Irish member of the European Commission. Our research clearly showed this was a vital issue for voters. The fact is, under existing treaties, the commission to be appointed in November 2009 will have to be reduced in size. This means there can be no guarantee that it will have an Irish member.

Last week's agreement means that, if Lisbon is ratified, we will retain the right to nominate an Irish person to future European Commissions. This is a major concession on the part of the other member states. Our people's clear desire to retain a permanent Irish presence at the commission table in Brussels will be respected, but only if we ratify Lisbon.

Our second aim last week was to get a satisfactory response to concerns that surfaced about the possible implications of the treaty for a range of issues such as taxation, defence, social and ethical issues and workers' rights.

On Friday, EU leaders gave us a commitment that Ireland will have its concerns satisfactorily addressed. Specifically, they have undertaken to provide full legal guarantees with regard to taxation, Ireland's traditional policy of neutrality and the provisions of our Constitution concerning the right to life, education and the family. This represents a very significant achievement.

The bottom line is that the Irish people have spoken and EU leaders have listened. Those who were expecting mere declarations in response to Irish concerns have been proven wrong. What is being offered are firm legal guarantees with treaty status. In addition, the summit confirmed the high importance attached by the union to workers' rights, one of the issues included in the Government's statement of the Irish people's concerns.

Our EU partners have, as always, been very understanding and supportive. I have every expectation that the detailed legal work on the form and content of guarantees for Ireland will bear fruit in the coming months.

The EU has consistently found the ability to reconcile the interests of its member states. It has met past challenges in a serious and constructive manner and has always found agreed ways forward. In dealing with Ireland's No vote, the union has displayed its characteristic spirit of solidarity and its flair for building consensus.

There will be those who will dismiss last week's agreement as insufficient and call for a complete renegotiation of the treaty. After the years of negotiation that produced Lisbon, going back to square one was simply not an option. Those who would insist on doing so are, whatever they may pretend, actually outright opponents of our EU membership. Their real aim is to dismantle the EU and not to reform it as the Lisbon Treaty aims to do. Demanding your own way and refusing to compromise is not a viable policy in a 27-member union. That is a recipe for marginalisation and a major loss of influence. It is not where Ireland's future lies.

It makes perfect sense for Ireland, if we can tie down the guarantees we have been promised, to look again at the Lisbon Treaty as modified in Ireland's case by the concessions we negotiated last week.

At this time of unprecedented global economic difficulty, the place for Ireland to be is at the heart of a union which can continue to deliver benefits to us as it has done so very successfully for the past 35 years. I am convinced that last week's agreement puts us on the right road to a better future in a more purposeful, more effective and more democratically-accountable European Union.

• Micheál Martin is Minister for Foreign Affairs