The EU is founded on principles of democracy


OPINION: On the day the French premier visits Dublin, the Taoiseach outlines some issues defining our relationship with Europe.

SOME OF the reactions to news of President Nicolas Sarkozy's visit to Ireland have much in common with messages heard during and after our recent referendum, and suggest limited awareness and understanding of how the European Union operates.

That, I believe, is a serious concern. It is not unique to Ireland, but that is where it matters most to me.

President Sarkozy and I agreed on his visit when we met at the European Council meeting in June, shortly before France assumed the six-monthly EU presidency. Holding the presidency is a challenging task, requiring a delicate balance between advancing the union's busy agenda (on behalf of all member states and their citizens) and national governmental responsibility to protect and promote national interests. It is a role requiring patient and skilful forging of compromise and consensus.

The EU is a complex international structure and evolves at an uneven pace. Occasional bursts of rapid progress are interwoven with slower, more difficult periods of treading water. The presidency can be a time of highs, or lows.

Ireland last held the presidency in 2004. I remember with great pride the historic date of May 1st, 2004, when we welcomed 10 new members into the EU family. I also remember the great sense of satisfaction and achievement for the Irish presidency when we concluded negotiations on the Constitutional Treaty for our enlarged union, with a toolbox for the 21st century era of globalisation.

A year later, the tide had turned when, during the Luxembourg presidency, Europe experienced rejection of the Constitutional Treaty by the electorate in France and The Netherlands. The union's capacity to work together, patiently and effectively, was again challenged.

Two years on, it was the turn of the Portuguese presidency to celebrate, with agreement on a modified version of the treaty in Lisbon last December.

This Lisbon Treaty was the culmination of eight years of work to equip the union to function more efficiently, more democratically and more effectively in the international arena. Its contents were seen by the member states as the appropriate basis on which to end this lengthy phase of institutional reform and to let the union concentrate more fully on major global policy challenges. Yet it is the treaty that, on June 12th, 2008, the Irish people decided not to endorse.

It may be that Ireland will be the only member state not to ratify the treaty. That decision is one that the other member states find hard to understand.

I campaigned strongly for a Yes vote. I was deeply disappointed by the outcome and, perhaps better than many, can understand the frustration of others. But we live in a democracy. Indeed, the union itself is founded on the principles of democracy. I fully respect the verdict of the Irish people, and I have made that clear to my European colleagues. And I have made clear that I expect them to do likewise.

But with democracy comes responsibility. The result of the referendum, as we said during the campaign, is not without consequences, not only in Ireland, but across the union. Those in other member states who hoped to see the treaty implemented from January 1st, 2009, are entitled to ask why the Irish people voted No. They are entitled to ask what the underlying concerns were, and whether they can be addressed.

They are also entitled to remind us of their own concerns, and to ask whether the union's record of working for consensus is to be jettisoned on the back of the Irish vote.

Here at home, we also need to better understand the concerns underlying the referendum result and its implications. Even among those who opposed the treaty, there are many different, often contradictory inferences. Some say the treaty is dead, others say it should be renegotiated by the member states, and still more say particular Irish concerns need to be accommodated.

These different views reinforce the need for deeper examination, consultation and analysis before we can draw definitive conclusions, and certainly before we can determine, both at home and with our EU partners, how best to move forward.

President Sarkozy comes to Dublin at the start of the French presidency. We will discuss current EU priorities, like food and oil prices, climate change and energy security, the Common Agriculture Policy and the World Trade Organisation talks. We will also talk about the result of the Irish referendum and what it means for the union. That is as it should be: that is how the union does its business.

For his part, President Sarkozy will want to convey the strong wish of the other member states to move forward. For my part, I will be stressing that the people have spoken, and that we are now embarking on an intensive process of research, consultation and analysis, to understand fully the concerns underpinning the referendum verdict and to help identify next steps. That will take time, and there cannot be predetermined outcomes.

The other member states recognised that when we met in June, and I undertook to give them an update on progress when we meet again in October.

The need for time to examine the concerns expressed should not distract us from the seriousness of the situation now faced by the union. Since 1973, Ireland has played its role as a committed member of the European family. Few, if any, today suggest that should not continue. But, for now, the best contribution we can make to the future of that family is to complete the phase of consultation and analysis ahead. We need patience and understanding from our partners over the coming months as we complete that process.

Equally, we cannot allow limited public knowledge or understanding of how the union functions become, or remain, the norm across Europe if we truly believe that the future wellbeing of our peoples is bound up within membership of the EU. That is a view that I know President Sarkozy shares.

When we meet, I will be urging that the union must do much more to connect and communicate with the citizens of all member states if it is to recover, and retain, their confidence and support.