Hans-Gert Pöttering, Speech in the Seanad

Here is the text of Hans-Gert Pöttering, President of the European Parliament’s Address to Seanàd Éireann. He is the second President of the Parliament to Address the upper house, Pat Cox being the first back in October 2002.

A Chathaoirligh agus a Sheanadóirí, is mór an onóir dom a bheith anseo inniu libh san áras ársa seo. For your benefit and mine, I will continue in English. It is even more for my benefit that I do so.

On behalf of the European Parliament, I thank you from the bottom of my heart for your kind invitation. Let me at the outset thank Members of Seanad Éireann here today for inviting me to address your Chamber. This is a great honour for me and the European Parliament. As the leader of one democratic institution to Members of another I say, “Thank you.” As President of the European Parliament, I hope to visit every one of the 27 member states of the EU during my two and a half year term of office.

I am delighted to be here in Ireland at a very important time in the context of the future development of the European Union. The last President of the European Parliament to address the Irish Seanad was Mr. Pat Cox, as mentioned by the Cathaoirleach. He was a great ambassador for the European Union during his tenure of office. We worked in an excellent way together on the basis of common ideals and goals. Pat Cox was an extraordinary President of the European Parliament.

I am, if Members will allow me to say, one of only six members of the European Parliament who have been there without interruption since the first direct elections were held in 1979.

Over the past 29 years I have made many Irish friends in Europe, many of whom have held very high office at European level. I started my work in 1979 in the regional committee which was and is so important for Ireland. The co-ordinator for my group was Mr. Tom O’Donnell who has been always a good friend. I am happy to see here Mary Banotti, with whom I also worked closely in the European Parliament.

Mr. Peter Sutherland was an inspiring member of the European Commission. He revolutionised the European airline industry by opening up the European airline sector to competition in the 1980s. We have all seen the clear success of this policy with cheaper air fares. As an island nation, the Irish people are aware of the benefits of this policy more than most.

Mr. Ray MacSharry as EU Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development reformed the operation of the Common Agricultural Policy in 1992. The Common Agricultural Policy was the first truly European Community policy and it remains an important EU-wide initiative in terms of the EU budget and in terms of what it says about a community built on solidarity and human concerns. For Ireland, it is worth €2.2 billion in payments from Europe to Irish farmers and to Irish rural communities during the current financing perspective from 2007 to 2013.

The then Taoiseach, Deputy John Bruton, and the then Tánaiste, Deputy Dick Spring, ran an impressive Irish Presidency of the European Union in 1996. John, who is a good friend of mine with whom I liaised closely during a crucial time as presidency member of the European Convention, the body which drafted the constitutional treaty, is now a very highly respected and influential EU ambassador to the United States of America.

The internal market Commissioner, Mr. Charlie McCreevy, currently heads up economic policy making at European level and in recent times has been dealing with the EU response to current difficulties on the international financial markets.

In the current legislature, Mr. Brian Crowley, MEP, is chairman of the fourth largest political group. He always has been a good and reliable colleague and friend. Ms Mairead McGuinness, MEP, chaired our committee of inquiry into equitable life insurance. Ms Avril Doyle, MEP, has been just nominated rapporteur on the emission trading scheme and will steer through parliament this key piece of EU climate change legislation.

I have a good working relationship with the Taoiseach, Deputy Bertie Ahern, the Minister of State with responsibility for European affairs, Deputy Dick Roche, and with the Leader of the Fine Gael Party, Deputy Enda Kenny, who is from the same pan-European political family as myself. I must be more objective, but I am sure Members will allow me to mention that. Deputy Enda Kenny is now the vice president of the European People’s Party.

Not only is Ireland a long-standing member of the European Union since 1973, it is a leading member of the Union and is playing a key role in policy making at a European level. I recall – if I as a German am allowed to say this in this important Chamber – when we were in the process of German unification following the fall of the Berlin Wall, that the crucial decisions were taken in Dublin during the 1990 Irish Presidency under the Government of the then Taoiseach, Deputy Charles Haughey, and the then Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Gerry Collins. I was told he is here but I have not seen him.

I mention him although I did not know he was present. They seized the historical momentum and carefully sought the agreement of the European partners.

The current secretary general of the European Commission is an Irish woman, Ms Catherine Day. The country has important ladies in office. I have just come from the castle – I do not know if that is the appropriate word to describe it – but it is a beautiful house where I met Madam President, Mary McAleese, a short while ago. The previous secretary general of the European Commission was also one of your countrymen, Mr. David O’Sullivan.

In 2004, when we had an Irish President of the Parliament, an Irish President of the Council and an Irish secretary general of the Commission, I recall thinking the Irish have taken over the place, but they have done so with charm, good humour and remarkable efficiency. I thank the Members for this. They should take over the leadership of the European Union more often; the so-called bigger countries would learn a great deal from the Irish.

Ireland has been a highly respected member of the European Union from day one. Many countries, particularly the former Communist countries of Central and Easter Europe who acceded to the Union in 2004 during the Irish Presidency of the European Union, look on this country as a role model in Europe. When I travel to countries such as Poland, Lithuania or Slovakia, I hear people talk about the Irish model of making the most out of the opportunities presented by EU membership and turning their countries into economic success stories. Ireland has left its mark on the Union in many ways.

One policy where Irish influence is very strong in Europe is in the area of development aid. Ireland is the sixth largest contributor of development aid per capita in the world. It will contribute €922 million in development aid this year. As a country that was once poor, but which has grown wealthy within Europe, Ireland has not forgotten what it was to be without. Ireland has been a shining example in a Union which itself shows the way to the rest of the world, and it can be proud of this.

The role of Irish NGOs in overseeing and participating in many EU development aid programmes at all times deserves the highest of praise. Many of these volunteers from civil and religious society work in extremely difficult environments. The European Union seeks to promote democracy, good governance, human rights and the rule of law around the world. The European Union project is a force for peace. The EU has brought peace to the continent of Europe after two very destructive world wars in the 20th century. As a German, born in September 1945 and growing up in the aftermath of the evil destruction of the Second World War and the Holocaust, my personal commitment to the European project was shaped by the determination of visionaries such as Robert Schuman, Konrad Adenauer, Aldice de Gasperi and others, that never again should there be war between the peoples of Europe. Schuman’s dream that war should not only be morally repugnant but also made materially impossible, has been made a reality. This is unique, not only in European history, but in world history also, and is the basis of our European engagement.

I support the European Union participating in peacekeeping operations around the world, with the backing of the United Nations. EU peacekeeping missions have successfully served in ATSI, Indonesia, Palestine, Bosnia and Kosovo. Having brought peace to our continent, I am proud that we are helping to build a global peace. The 4,500-strong EU peacekeeping mission is now being deployed in Chad. This mission will help to address many of the humanitarian problems at present being faced by the 300,000 refugees in the camps in eastern Chad. The men, women and children in these camps have fled from the barbarity of the genocide that is taking place in Sudan. The international community must continue to do more to stop militia attacks against the people of Darfur. This EU peacekeeping operation, with United Nations support, is under the strong leadership of an Irishman, Lt. General Patrick Nash, and will help to bring stability and peace to Chad and the volatile central African region.

The European Union aims to help build a world where peace and understanding triumph over hostility and despair. On the 50th anniversary of Ireland first taking part in United Nations peacekeeping, I should like to pay tribute to all the Irish Army personnel who have served – and continue to serve – on some 75 UN missions to date. The Irish flag has flown together with the United Nations banner in many parts of the world, and I am sure it will continue to do so for many years to come.

By good fortune, my first visit to Ireland as President of the European Parliament is within a few days of the tenth anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement. This is a useful occasion to reflect on the role that the European Union has played in bringing peace and reconciliation to the island of Ireland. Irish and British membership of the European Union undoubtedly provided the common space that helped to build the close relations between political leaders. These close relations, in turn, helped create the conditions in which peace could flourish.

Since 1995, the European Union has also contributed more than €1.65 billion in financial support to promote economic and social regeneration within the Border counties and in Northern Ireland. This support has been given through a variety of funds, including the INTERREG cross-border programme, the EU PEACE fund, mainstream Structural Funds and the International Fund for Ireland. The European Parliament has always overwhelmingly supported strong EU financial aid programmes for Northern Ireland and the Border counties. The peace process in Ireland can and must be used as a model to help resolve other conflicts in Europe and around the world. Ireland has shown that it can achieve peace but that it takes real courage, determination, leadership, understanding and forgiveness.

As a Catholic, I am impressed that the Seanad starts its meetings with a prayer. I am sorry that I was not in the Chamber for it. Personalities who do this can forgive and this is part of our beliefs and values. I congratulate the Members on having the courage to pray in their Chamber. This is a very personal remark and I thank the Members for giving this example.

John Hume, who together with David Trimble won the Nobel Peace Prize, was a great Member of the European Parliament. We worked together from 1979 in the regional committee. He described the European Union itself as the greatest peace process in history. MEPs from Ireland and Northern Ireland have worked and have continued to work together within the European Parliament on issues of common concern, including on EU regional, social and agricultural policy, consumer protection initiatives and cross-border co-operation.

The Single Market has been a great success for the European Union, including Ireland. It has been vital for Ireland as an exporting country with a very open economy. With the elimination of transaction costs, the single European currency, the euro, has brought clear benefits to consumers and businesses alike. We should ask ourselves where Europe would be at this time of economic difficulty, and with trouble on the international financial markets, if the euro did not exist. People are not thinking of the great advantage afforded by the European currency. If our common currency were not an operating currency in 15 different member states, we would be in the same situation we were in 1992 when international currency speculators played one EU currency off against the other.

Let me make some remarks on the reform treaty. When the treaty was signed in Lisbon on 13 December, I spoke about the remarkable growth in democracy in the European Union in the short period since the first European election in 1979. Democracy is a big winner in this treaty. The treaty helps to promote the democratic legitimacy of the European Union. From its starting point as an appointed and consultative Assembly in 1958, the now directly-elected European Parliament has become the true voice of almost 500 million European citizens. It is now an equal player with a Council of Ministers on a range of policy issues. The Lisbon reform treaty will boost our so-called co-decision powers to almost 100% of European policy areas. The treaty also extends the role of national parliaments and gives them, including this House, the guardianship of subsidiarity. Members of the Seanad and their fellow parliamentarians will protect the balance between the Union and the member states.

I would like to dispel the myth that the European Union is all powerful. Under the doctrine of conferral, the European Union has only the powers the different EU treaties drawn up by the member states give it. For example, the EU does not set our tax rates, regardless of what one reads in the newspapers. It does not run our health, education and social services, nor does it decide our citizenship laws. The Union does only those things that the member states have decided to do together since they can achieve better results by acting in common than by acting alone on a national level. The essential secret of the EU’s success is that it is a unique union of member states which respects the interests and rights of all of them, whether they are great or small. I wish that the so-called great countries would appreciate more the work of the smaller countries, from whose behaviour – especially Ireland – they could learn a great deal.

This reform treaty is about ensuring the European Union can become even more democratic, more efficient and more effective in how it will carry out its business into the future. Strong European institutions are the best guarantee for the implementation of solidarity and ensuring the concerns of all member states, large, medium and small alike, are taken into consideration.

The European Union must face up to new challenges such as ensuring climate change targets are met on time, energy supplies are protected, greater co-operation at an EU level to tackle cross-border drug smuggling, confronting organised crime and defeating international terrorism. These challenges are clearly too large for any one country to meet and therefore we must meet them the European way by pooling our resources and working together.

I will make some remarks on climate change. The European Union has promised to lead the world towards a global post-Kyoto agreement with binding targets. The eyes of the world will be on us throughout 2008 and 2009 until Copenhagen. We must fulfil these expectations. I recently visited the United Nations and the Secretary General and all other people I met there asked us – and they support us – to take a real leadership. To take leadership in a question of preserving the environment or, as I would prefer to say, preserving the creation is a wonderful, peaceful leadership we have the responsibility to accept.

With the energy package, the European Union now has a sound and credible policy framework for achieving the goals it has set itself. Putting the European Union on the path to a low-carbon future certainly demands a considerable commitment, but it also brings real opportunities for growth and increased competitiveness. If the European Union manages to take the lead in environmental-friendly technologies such as carbon capture and storage, this would give it a decisive competitive edge on the global market.

To fulfil its role as European co-legislator and to be able to make well-informed choices, in April last year the European Parliament established the Temporary Committee on Climate Change. This committee will play a critical role in achieving a deal on the energy package. We want to achieve a result before the European elections in June 2009 and thus in time for the United Nations conference which will take place in Copenhagen the following December. If we do not succeed in this, the Europeans will not have a position and this conference might fail. Therefore, the work in the European Parliament is important and I ask all of the Senators to support us.

Adopting the energy package as soon as possible is also a matter of credibility, as the European Union’s role as leader in the fight against climate change is not just about setting targets. If we want to be able to convince our partners world wide to participate in a global and binding framework, we will have to deliver.

The European Parliament has overwhelmingly endorsed the Lisbon reform treaty. I wish to state clearly that I fully support this treaty, as indeed I backed the earlier constitutional treaty which was agreed under the skilful negotiations of the 2004 Irish Presidency. However, I also wish to make it clear that the method of ratification in each of the 27 member states is a matter for that country alone. Ratification through national parliaments is as equally valid and legitimate as the referendum due to be held in Ireland by virtue of its Constitution.

I firmly believe that it is in the future economic and political interest of the European Union as a whole that this treaty be ratified. This House will understand that I will be hoping for a “Yes” vote by the Irish electorate on referendum day. However, this is, of course, a decision that only the Irish voters can make and it is not up to me or any other person to tell them how to vote.

I trust in the wisdom of the Irish electorate which is perhaps the best-informed electorate in the EU about European matters. This is in no small way due to its excellent National Forum on Europe under the very fair and able chairmanship of a former Member of this House, Maurice Hayes. I pay tribute to him and the work of his excellent body.

This is yet another area where Ireland has shown leadership. Many European countries have followed by creating such mechanisms to involve citizens and civil society in EU policymaking.

If the House allows it, I urge that a balanced and reasoned debate during this referendum campaign takes place in Ireland over the coming weeks. All interested parties need to be given space to air their views. I hope that scare tactics and falsehoods are avoided. I hear from colleagues from the European Parliament who mislead the Irish people. We should reject this.

I am a believer in the defence of human life. If somebody says that this is affected by European law and this reform treaty, it is not true. The matter of how Ireland protects life is a matter for Irish policy. I say this as a Catholic. I defend Ireland’s position. Ireland should not believe these people and should look into their backgrounds, from where they received their education and what they want to tell today. I am very outspoken because I am annoyed by what I sometimes read and hear, particularly from one colleague from the European Parliament.

As Members of the Upper House of the Irish Parliament, I am sure that Members will all take a particular interest in the provisions of the Lisbon treaty that, for the first time, give a legally guaranteed role to national parliaments in the EU legislative process. The European Parliament greatly welcomes this development as we see the national parliaments as our partners in ensuring strong parliamentarianism, which is key to democratic control over the executive branch of government. It is on this basis that we organise regular joint parliamentary meetings of the European Parliament and national parliaments so that we can co-operate on such issues of concern to our electorates as climate change, the cultural dialogue and the Lisbon strategy.

While economic integration is an ongoing process at an EU level, the European Union has always been conscious of the need to ensure that cultural, linguistic and national diversities are fully protected and promoted within a European context. Unity in diversity is our ambition. On 1 January 2007, the Irish language – Gaelic – became an official language of the European Union following a proposal by the Taoiseach, Deputy Bertie Ahern, and supported by all 27 EU governments. This is another example of how the EU respects and promotes diversity.

In conclusion, where injustice rears its ugly head around the world and where there are breaches of human rights, Europe must speak out, regardless of whether these take place in Israel, Palestine, Tibet, Zimbabwe, Guantanamo Bay or Belarus, which is the last Stalinist dictatorship in Europe. Let us never forget that the eastern part of our continent lived in a situation in which Belarus is still living and it is our duty to defend the people in their peaceful fight for democracy and legal order. Let us not forget the people of Belarus.

Speaking with one voice, representing 500 million people and 27 different countries, the EU can and should play a more influential role on the international stage. The European Union can be a strong voice and a force for peace, freedom, justice and democracy. Europe is a force for good, but we must keep communicating to the people of Europe so that they can fully understand what work is being carried out at a political level in the European Union. We can look on the achievements of those who founded the European Union with a great sense of pride. From an initial six member states in 1957 there are now 27 members with many other European countries seeking membership of the Union. This is a serious sign that Europe is heading in the right direction. The people in Ireland can look on their achievements in Europe with a great sense of pride. They have brought common sense, innovation and commitment to the European decision-making table, and in the name of the European Parliament I thank Ireland and its people for the great Irish contribution to European unity.

A former Member of this House, Michael Yeats, was a member of the pre-1979 European Parliament. His father, Ireland’s great national poet, W. B. Yeats, of course also served his country as a Member of Seanad Éireann and I would like to conclude by quoting some lines of one of his most beautiful poems. For me these lines bring to mind the delicate nature of what we have constructed together in Europe, inspired by the dreams and visions of that great post-war generation:

But I, being poor, have only my dreams;

I have spread my dreams under your feet;

Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

Go raibh míle maith agaibh.

An excellent speech that was followed by a question and answer session

Parliamentry Reports, Seanad Debates, Vol. 189 No. 1 – Tuesday, 8 April 2008

Author: Stephen

Cork born and bred, proud European and Irishman. Involved in many organisations and politics. Also writes for SpirtualityIreland.org and UCC Express.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.