Dáil Éireann - Volume 451 - 05 April, 1995

Ceisteanna—Questions. Oral Answers. - EU Intergovernmental Conference.

9. Mr. B. Ahern asked the Taoiseach the formal proposals, if any, the Government will put forward to the forthcoming EU intergovernmental conference for the direct election of the EU Commission President and for commissioners to appear before national parliaments in view of his speech in Brussels on 29 March 1995. [6949/95]

[1270] 10. Miss Harney asked the Taoiseach the proposals, if any, the Government intends putting forward to amend the Treaty on European Union so as to provide for the election of the EU Commission President by plebiscite of the people of the Union; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [6970/95]

The Taoiseach: I propose to take Questions Nos. 9 and 10 together.

I set out in this House on 7 March last the Governments' general approach to the 1996 intergovernmental conference. At this stage Ireland has made no formal proposals for the Intergovernmental Conference. It is important that the Intergovernmental Conference be preceded by a widespread public debate on possible ways of improving the democratic mandate and accountability of all European institutions. My speech in Brussels on 29 March to a conference of European Prime Ministers, party leaders and parliamentarians, was designed to encourage such a debate.

Ireland's general approach to the Intergovernmental Conference negotiations will be to equip the Union, institutionally and otherwise, to meet the challenges of the 21st century, including further enlargement, in a way that will retain the adherence of its citizens and ensure that Ireland's vital national interests are fully protected.

Mr. B. Ahern: Last week in Brussels the Taoiseach suggested that the President of the European Commission should be directly elected by the people and that commissioners should be answerable to national parliaments. Does this mark a change in policy? Is this a proposal that the Minister of State, Deputy Mitchell, will present to the committee of wise men or one that Ireland will submit for inclusion on the agenda of the intergovernmental conference? Such a proposal would completely alter the constitutional balance in the European Union. Currently, small countries like Ireland can express their views at the European Council at [1271] which the Taoiseach has an equal voice——

An Ceann Comhairle: Let us avoid elaboration.

Mr. B. Ahern: I am trying to save time. Either the Taoiseach forgot last week that these issues were of importance to the country or he has some other agenda. Did the Government discuss these proposals?

The Taoiseach: We are now in a phase where we are preparing a possible agenda for the intergovernmental conference. There should be widespread debate on the various options which might be considered for increasing the democratic accountability of European institutions. I strongly support Ireland's position as a member of the Council of Ministers and nothing I have said would imply a diminution.

The Commission must retain the sole power of initiative in the European Union. If the Council of Ministers or the European Parliament were given the power of initiative, in European terms literally everybody's business would be nobody's business. The reason the European Union has been such a success is that the Commission has the sole power of initiative — the original founding idea of Jean Monnet. It was considered acceptable at the time that the Commission would not have a direct democratic mandate because many of its powers and the issues dealt with were limited.

Now that the range of issues upon which the Commission might take an initiative is being widened the argument might be advanced that there is a case for enhancing its democratic mandate. Many of those opposed to a deepening of Europe use the lack of a democratic mandate falsely and unwisely as an excuse for not giving the Commission more powers or diminishing its powers. Anything which reduces the dynamic role of the Commission is not in the interests of either European intergration [1272] or Ireland. During the years the Commission has been a very good friend to smaller member states.

We should have a discussion on how the Commission can be brought closer to the people. One of the suggestions I made in a political context at a political meeting for consideration by my colleagues, not as a formal Government position, was that an opportunity might be sought at some stage — perhaps not at this intergovernmental conference but a later one — to consider whether the President of the Commission should be elected in much the same way as the head of the executive branch of the United States Federal Government is elected, directly by the people. This is an issue which at least should be in people's minds, if not on the formal agenda at this juncture.

On the question of accountability of the Commission to national parliaments, I was not suggesting that national parliaments should be involved in nominating it. I was suggesting that it might be the responsibility of a Commissioner to be accountable on an ongoing basis and to meet with a parliament of a member state other than his or her own. For example, the Swedish Commissioner might regularly appear either before the Dáil or before the EU committee of the Dáil so that a personal relationship would build up between individual members of the Commission and Parliaments of member states. I believe that would bring the Commission closer to the people and would create a greater opportunity for its work to have public support. However, I make no claim for exclusive wisdom in regard to the proposals I am making.

Mr. R. Burke: I am glad the Taoiseach is making no claim for exclusive wisdom.

The Taoiseach: I would welcome proposals from any other parties that wish to contribute to an informed debate on how the institutions of Europe can be reformed so as to enhance their democratic accountability and legitimacy.

[1273] Following this Intergovernmental Conference, we cannot afford to have a repeat of the situation where the treaty is defeated, as it was in Denmark, and nearly defeated in France.

Mr. Dempsey: That proposal is akin to saying that the Civil Service here should go for——

Mr. S. Brennan: Democratic control over buses.

Mr. Barrett: What is your idea?

The Taoiseach: If that continues, we will have a serious problem on our hands as far as European construction is concerned.

An Ceann Comhairle: The House will observe that the time has come to proceed to priority questions but I feel I should hear Deputy Harney whose Question No. 10 refers. The Deputy must be brief because we must proceed to deal with priority questions quite soon.

Miss Harney: While the Taoiseach is perfectly entitled to put forward his view I do not think it is appropriate to make a comparison with the United States, which is essentially unitary territory. Will the Taoiseach not agree that it would be better to have a popularly elected Commission or that in each member state the Commissioner might be elected? That might be a more effective way of enhancing the democratic mandate. Having a German, a Frenchman or some other person standing for election in Ireland would not do anything to enhance the democratic mandate of the Commission. Does the Taoiseach intend putting forward his view as a Government view in the context of the Irish Presidency and, in particular, of the Intergovernmental Conference meeting during the Irish Presidency?

The Taoiseach: I disagree with the Deputy. I speak as the Leader of a party which is committed to the concept of a [1274] federal Europe and we have no doubts about this in Fine Gael. I believe we are moving, ultimately, towards a situation where we will have a united states of Europe and I hope that will happen. I would like to see it happen in my life-time and I make no apology for that. I realise that in so saying I differ with other Members of this House but that is my view.

Mr. S. Brennan: We will come back to that.

The Taoiseach: The election of individual Commissioners, as Deputy Harney suggested, would not achieve the objective I am seeking which is that people should vote on one issue at one time in all parts of Europe. Individual election of individual Commissioners in different countries would not meet that requirement. We need to create a sense that the European people, whether they live in Sicily or Belmullet, are together on the same day deciding on a single question. We have not yet achieved that and until we do we will have this sense that the European institutions do not fully have a democratic mandate from the united people of Europe speaking with a united voice.

As to whether the proposal would be included in the Government's formal proposals to the Intergovernmental Conference, it is far too early to say that. It may well not be included on this occasion on the basis that there may not be sufficient support for it at this stage throughout Europe. However, I will be making any contacts I can that would be useful to explore the level of support for this or for other ideas that might enhance the democratic accountability of European institutions, without which we will not achieve the full potential of Europe. In almost every sense Europe has been an outstanding success and yet it would appear that the European public does not fully realise that.

Mr. B. Ahern: I am conscious of the time but we will return to this matter [1275] again because a number of my colleagues have many questions to ask. I am glad the Taoiseach has clarified the issue that this is not a Government proposal but one he made at a political meeting. We look forward to a useful discussion on the agenda for the Intergovernmental Conference. However, the Taoiseach's proposal, even in the political context, is very unwise because the balance for the small countries is vital. From our point of view, that balance is favourable. The Taoiseach's proposal is very similar to an earlier French proposal that the President of the Commission should be elected and, having been elected by popular mandate, he or she would then choose the Commissioners. Earlier today the Taoiseach said that during his discussions with President Santer the one issue he would not move away from was the fact that the Irish Government would choose its Commissioner. If one goes down that road, which is similar to the French proposal, one could quickly find oneself isolated, from a political point of view. I suggest that the Taoiseach should forget about that proposal because I believe it is a bad one.

The Taoiseach: I would not expect the Leader of the Gaullist party in Ireland and I to agree on European matters.

Mr. Dempsey: He is the Leader of Fianna Fáil.

The Taoiseach: I would welcome a Fianna Fáil Gaullist submission on its view of the future of Europe. It would be an interesting document to read.

Mrs. O'Rourke: The Taioseach's proposals are daft.

The Taoiseach: There is no implication in anything I have said which would involve either a diminution of the role of the Council of Ministers or any concession on Ireland's requirement to [1276] have one of the members of Commission.

Mr. T. Kitt: What about smaller states?

The Taoiseach: It is my considered and strong view that those two measures should remain so as to maintain the strength of Ireland in Europe. However, that does not take away from the need to look at ways of enhancing the overall democratic accountability and legitimacy of European institutions because unless we do that we run the risk of Europe not gaining the support of the electorate that it deserves.

Mr. B. Ahern: I accept that.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: That concludes questions to the Taoiseach. We now proceed to questions nominated for priority to the Minister for Finance.