FORTY YEARS A GROWING

 

The fortieth anniversary of the Treaty of Rome finds Ireland in a confident, upbeat mood due in no small measure to membership over the last generation of the communities the treaty inaugurated. Ireland is exceptional among the 15 member states in this respect, both for the strength of its commitment to European integration and for the economic growth and development it has stimulated and sustained. The anniversary comes at a time when other member states are undergoing more traumatic change and are much less confident about the future. All the more reason for Irish citizens and their political leaders to reflect on how best the European Union ought to evolve in coming years and on how best Ireland's interests within it should be pursued.

The paper today makes it clear that the durability and acceptability of the supranational institutions set up by the Treaty of Rome were closely bound up with the highly original way in which they balanced the interests of smaller and larger states. The new approach was based on revulsion at the failure of the existing balance of power systems to prevent modern was breaking out between Europe's major states. This political component of European integration was disguised for Irish voters, who were convinced that the main arguments in favour of joining in the early 1970s were predominantly economic.

In Ireland the positive lessons of membership were rapidly absorbed, along with the experience of higher agricultural prices, a growing volume of transfers and the diversification of trade and diplomacy away from Britain. In recent years EU membership has come to be seen as part of an emancipating process for the Irish State and Irish society. Alongside this maturing goes an awareness that it will bear a growing responsibility for solidarity within the wider European polity.

Ireland has benefitted from the regional, now more and more the continental, focus of European integration and the security regime it is helping to create among its members and potential members. Enlargement of the EU towards central, eastern and southern Europe will put this State into the richer tier even if cohesion policies are deepened and extended, as the Government advocates. Ireland could be a net contributor to the EU budget in a mere eight years time. It will occupy a chillier and more self reliant role within a larger EU, possibly with less access to the centres of power, and probably with less favourable public attitudes towards the Union than the enthusiasm that puts this State currently at the top of the Eurobarometer polls.

One of the most difficult tasks facing whatever Government takes office following the forthcoming election will be to chart a course through these tricky negotiating waters. Economic and monetary union, CAP reform, EU enlargement and changes in the structural funds will produce winners and losers in Irish society. More immediately, the next three months will see the negotiating endgame in the Intergovernmental Conference. The Dutch EU Presidency has now published a batch of draft treaty texts on flexibility, majority voting and Common Foreign and Security Policy matters to complement the Irish chapters published last December. Today in Rome, as the anniversary is celebrated, several states are pushing for closer cooperation on security and defence.

There has not been sufficient public or political attention to these constitutional changes. They should, but probably will not, figure prominently in the forthcoming election. If, as many observers and commentators expect, the election is held in May, this will leave precious little time for a new Government to be formed in time for the negotiations in Amsterdam on June 16th and 17th. These issues cannot be left to officials to handle, no matter how talented and [experienced they are, but require the full attention of political leaders.