[an error occurred while processing this directive]
BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
Last Updated: Tuesday, 27 April, 2004, 10:26 GMT 11:26 UK
Ask Bertie Ahern
Bertie Ahern
You put your questions to Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern in a special edition of our global phone-in programme Talking Point.

  • Transcript

    Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern has overseen his country's presidency of the European Union at a crucial time for Europe.

    With days to go to EU enlargement and European leaders pushing for a draft constitution, Ireland's chairmanship will impact upon a number of key issues before it is handed over in June.

    Mr Ahern has said he is committed to allowing workers from EU accession states into Ireland on 1 May. His deputy Mary Harney has said they are needed to fill Ireland's labour gaps.

    But many in Ireland are concerned about current levels of immigration, despite others believing the country's history of migration imposes a debt of gratitude on it to welcome newcomers.

    What role has Ireland played in the lead up to EU expansion? What does Mr Ahern hope to achieve before the end of his EU presidency? What has he achieved so far?

    The programme will be broadcast on BBC World TV and BBC World Service radio on Sunday 25 April at 1400 GMT/1500 BST.


    Transcript


    Roger Hearing:

    Hello and welcome to Talkingpoint, I'm Roger Hearing. This week we're in Dublin and our special guest is the Irish prime minister, the Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern. Ireland currently holds the presidency of the European Union and it's a time of great upheaval for the EU.

    Later this week 10 new members will be joining, bringing the total to 25 and turning the organisation into the third largest grouping of human beings on the planet, after India and China. During their presidency the Irish have achieved the not inconsiderable feat of persuading EU leaders to agree that the text for a constitution for the organisation will be settled by the end of June. Mr Ahern welcome to the programme. We'll go to our first caller in just a moment but let me ask you, if I may, on that issue of the constitution, your British counterpart, Tony Blair, has announced that there's going to be a referendum in Britain on the final text of the constitution to see if it's acceptable to the British people, do you think that's a good idea?


    Bertie Ahern:

    Well we always have referendums in Ireland every time there's a constitution change, so it's something we're very familiar with. Other countries do as well, so it's up to everybody and every country under their own constitution provision and many countries have a situation where parliament delegated that responsibility - in our case the law has always been that you have a referendum.

    It has this value that people understand European issues far better because if you've had a campaign, obviously the issues have been debated and problems like this debated in the media, people have been canvassed by political activists about it and so there's a greater understanding and an affinity to it. It creates problems at times as we've had in Ireland


    Roger Hearing:

    You were quoted as saying - warning him against it at one point and saying it would tie up politics for a year.


    Bertie Ahern:

    Well it does tie up politics, there's no doubt about that, depending on what the issue is. I actually think the constitution is a far easier one to have it on because the constitution is fairly clear what is it about. It's a constitution that is simplifying, streamlining the rules of procedure, stating the competence of Europe.

    But a decade ago or so we had one on the Maastricht Treaty. It was about how high finance in Europe was going to work, it was extremely complex - how do you explain that to the man and woman in the street? In fact the truth of it was - I was finance minister then - it was hard enough for us to explain it to each other.

    So it depends what the issue is. I think the European constitution is a far easier one for people to explain, to argue and debate and for people to get some passion about.


    Roger Hearing:

    Let's take our first caller now.


    Ruairi O'Connor:

    Hi this is Ruairi O'Connor from Sydney, Australia. I'd just like to ask Mr Ahern, will he encourage all EU states to hold a referendum on any finalised European constitution in order for the people across the EU to have their say? And if in any future referendum, a member state voted against the constitution, would he advocate re-holding a referendum in order to obtain the desired result or a yes vote?


    Roger Hearing:

    What's your reply to that?


    Bertie Ahern:

    Well as I've said at the outset, different countries have their own constitutional provision. Some countries have no constitution so people have to make their own decision, otherwise that would be an interference. But as I've said I think there are times that a debate and a referendum are good, there are other times it's just too complex.


    Roger Hearing:

    And what is this time? This time is a good time?


    Bertie Ahern:

    I think this is a good time because I think the constitution is something that people will have an interest - you're understood - these are the charter's fundamental rights. It deals with competences; it is definitely simplifying procedures. I think the other part of the question - if somebody rejects it, do you put it back again? Well Ireland was in that position after Nice.


    Roger Hearing:

    You went back for another vote in fact.


    Bertie Ahern:

    Yes, we had to change the context, we had to get the Seville Declaration. And the position was if we didn't do that we were going to hold up the whole enlargement process, even though all those who opposed the debate in Ireland, those who canvassed in the debate, said they didn't want to see enlargement held up. But the effect of the vote was that enlargement was held up.

    So we had to go back and change the context obviously to do with the neutrality issue, which was the biggest issue in the Irish campaign. So you cannot give a commitment that you would not go back, I think, one country can't hold up everything, you have to consider your position.


    Roger Hearing:

    But what does happen if one country says no?


    Bertie Ahern:

    Well it's happened a few times - in '92, Denmark voted no, they had to opt out of some of the clauses.


    Roger Hearing:

    But that wasn't on the constitution was it, which is a bit more fundamental.


    Bertie Ahern:

    Well it wasn't on the constitution of Europe but it was on a key issue. It was actually the financial mechanism, it was the Maastricht referendum. In Nice we would have stopped enlargement.

    I think if you say no to something major, I mean obviously ultimately if you continue to say no and if you don't want to find a way out, you have to consider what your position is - do you want to part of the group or do you not? - you can't stand against the rules. And if you find that the constitution's not something you accept well it creates major difficulties for you.


    Roger Hearing:

    This question has come in from Paul Whelan in Dublin.


    Paul Whelan:

    My name is Paul Whelan from Dublin, Ireland and I'd like to ask Taoiseach Bertie Ahern about the prospects for a free and fair debate in the run-up to a referendum on the new EU constitution.

    Immediately preceding the Nice referendum here in Ireland - the re-run of it - Bertie Ahern's government introduced a number of changes to the referendum commission that effectively meant that the state no longer had the responsibility to put both sides of the argument fairly, and instead only ran an information campaign. As a result, we saw the 'yes' side outspending the 'no' side by 9 euros to every one euro spent - which obviously contributed to the reversal of that previous result. And I'd like to ask the Taoiseach would he commit to ensuring that both sides have equal funding and can put forward both sides of the argument in a coherent and democratic fashion?


    Bertie Ahern:

    Well we did change the referendum procedure where both sides were put under state money. But what happened in the second campaign was that far more people took an interest in the campaign - trade unions acted for it, civic society got involved, employers got involved - they did not want to see Ireland reject enlargement.

    We had a procedure that a referendum commission had to equally put the arguments for and against. Quite frankly it wasn't a procedure that I liked very much because regardless of the argument if there was no good argument against the 'no' side or it could have been the 'yes' side, had to think up some spurious arguments and equally put that to the people. And that was not a good procedure.

    In fact on the first vote in Ireland, and perhaps what the caller was referring to, we had a lot of outside money - outside of Ireland - that was put into Ireland on the 'no' campaign from anonymous people and that certainly wasn't a good position either.


    Roger Hearing:

    So what's going to happen this time?


    Bertie Ahern:

    Well I think his question - the first part of his question - will it be a fair and open and extensive debate - the answer to that is clearly yes. It will be a debate in Parliament, a debate in parliamentary committees and then it is up to the people who join in the campaign and who puts resources into the campaign.


    Roger Hearing:

    But there won't be any restrictions on financing?


    Bertie Ahern:

    There's no restrictions insofar as you're not going to democratically stop people from wanting to put in money, which I think is what he would like me to do, which I won't.


    Roger Hearing:

    Let's move now on to the question of EU expansion, obviously very current at the moment. We've had this e-mail through from Saso Kotevski in Copenhagen. Saso says: In my opinion the EU still has a long way to go before it becomes a united body. Do you think that inviting new members to the EU before we have gained a common voice is an explosive cocktail?


    Bertie Ahern:

    No I don't, I think the enlargement process as it's happened through the years from the original six, right through - we joined, in Ireland, 30 years ago but we'd seen many extensions since, this is the biggest single one bringing it, as you said at the outset, to an enormous block and powerful block.

    But I mean what is it all about? Enlargement is to allow people the opportunity to have a voice in Europe. I think Ireland is a good example of this - we've four million people, I sit on the same table as Tony Blair, Jacques Chirac, Gerhard Schroeder, where I can put my point of view as a small country. It is a sharing and pooling of sovereignty, it allows people to enhance, I think, their own position and collectively work on all kinds of issues whether it is trade, whether it is agriculture, whether it is education. And I think that is a very powerful issue.

    People join because they want to join, nobody is coerced into joining. It is based around freedom and solidarity of human rights, good governance. So I think the European Community is a very good body, I think it's a very fair body, I think it's a collective body, a very good governance, good democracy. I don't think there's a fear for anyone.


    Roger Hearing:

    But is it all moving in the same direction? I think part of what the e-mailer was saying is that perhaps someone from Ireland - at one far end of Europe - what do they have in common perhaps with someone perhaps - a Czech, perhaps someone from Malta, with very different outlooks, very different cultural backgrounds?


    Bertie Ahern:

    People have been moving around Europe - in the early centuries, in the fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth centuries Irish monks and Irish educationalists were moving around Europe. We had Irish colleges all over France and Germany hundreds of years ago. Other nationalists have been moving around. I think the concept of people working together is as old as anything you want to visualise.

    I think the collective spirit that the union brings in cultural issues and dealing with different laws and trying to pool it, is a good thing. One of the big fears that we had in this country, and I know that a number of the smaller countries that are now in this present phase of enlargement is, would you lose your cultural identity, would you lose the cultural things - the song and dance and music and writing that people have?

    In our case it was the opposite - we opened up new strengths - I mean things like Riverdance are now on the world stage where it would have only been in parts of Ireland at one time. Irish writers have opened up to new markets. So I think the pooling of sovereignty, the opening up of markets, the opening up of views is actually an enormously positive thing. And I don't have any fears about that and I've said this to the enlarged countries that I think they will find their experiences as one of exchange, of education, of sharing their views with others and I think that's a very positive thing.


    Roger Hearing:

    Let's take another call now. This has come in from Irina Cristea in Bucharest in Romania: through also on video link.


    Irina Cristea:

    Hi, I'm Irina Cristea from Bucharest, Romania. And my question is: Is it possible that after the first years of difficult EU membership for the 10 countries that are joining the Union in two weeks or so, that the Union will shut its doors for newcomers like Romania and Bulgaria who are hoping to join the Union in 2007? Thank you.


    Roger Hearing:

    What about the situation of Romania and Bulgaria?


    Bertie Ahern:

    Well I think they will join. A decision has to be made next December exactly when the final stages of negotiation between Romania, Bulgaria and the Commission are presently going on. I've been deeply involved with those negotiations, not only during the Irish presidency but of last year as well, very much following what's happening. They are making progress, they have to, everybody has to follow the same system, they have to comply with the same regulations and they have to comply with the various criteria.


    Roger Hearing:

    Well there have been some doubts, as far as Romania is concerned, there's an EU report.


    Bertie Ahern:

    Yes they're having some difficulties trying to achieve as much as they can as quickly as they can. By the way some of the 10 that joined now have had similar difficulties. I don't think any of these things are major obstacles. I think they'll get there. Time to be decided in December but I don't think there's any doubt about it.

    Then it opens up, I think, what the questioner's saying - will the opportunities of movement apply then? - Yes they will. Will the opportunities that are open to everybody else apply to them? - Yes they will. I think the countries are trying very, very hard to comply with the regulations.

    It is a complex system and not to complicate it but what happens in the negotiations is the work is divided into chapters, chapters on economics and trade and various issues, and chapters are being closed and the countries have to, with their negotiating team, work at these negotiations and progress is slow. It is inevitably slow on these issues, but it will happen.

    I think there is not any doubt in my mind whatever about the date - I'm not raising an issue about the date by just saying that decision has to be made at the end of the year but I don't see any major obstacles to their membership, over the remainder of this decade certainly.


    Roger Hearing:

    Well let's widen the question of expansion even further. Anisha Patel from Miami, United States has e-mailed us to say: What do you foresee for Turkey's integration into the EU? It's the longest standing candidate to date - what chance is there?


    Bertie Ahern:

    Well I think the Turkey situation is going to generate far more debate and far more controversy for many, many reasons. Its size - when Turkey, if it joins the Community, obviously the whole voting weights issue, which is a major ongoing debate and has been a debate over the generations as well. They're a very, very large country, so obviously their weight and their influence and their status will create a number of changes. Will Turkey join? They are trying very, very hard. You're aware that recently some countries and some ministers in different countries are saying that¿.


    Roger Hearing:

    There's been opposition from France.


    Bertie Ahern:

    Yes, that they have doubts that this will happen. My own view is I think a decision will be made that they will join. What period of negotiation I would say would be more a lengthier period than perhaps Turkey would want. But I think Prime Minister Erdogan and his foreign minister - Minister Gul - they are working very, very hard to get to this position and I think they will be happy to get an agreement that negotiations start.

    There are a lot of pluses but I think that a community and a country like Turkey that will come into the community, it brings different cultures.


    Roger Hearing:

    It will be the first major Muslim country.


    Bertie Ahern:

    Muslim country and I think that could be a good thing. I mean we all understand now the conflicts and the differences we have and we all in our own countries I think are working to embrace different cultures, different religions and I think the Muslim population is enormous already within the European Community. Obviously the context of that in terms of the population would change dramatically if Turkey were members.

    But I think people are opening their minds to seeing that it is better to engage, it is better to try to work together rather than have divisive policies. And while it is a change and it would be a cultural shock in more terms than one. But I think Prime Minister Erodogan, since he was elected, has worked extremely hard, foreign minister Gul has worked extremely hard. They worked hard on the Cyprus issue, that might or might not work but they've worked hard on it. And I think they are dramatically changing their human rights situation. They've brought in huge justice and home affairs reforms. There are doubts about some of the issues about whether the reforms will be fully implemented but we can understand that - I think it takes time for these things to happen. But they've strong support from the United States, they've strong support from many other countries in Europe and it's going to be hard to say no.


    Roger Hearing:

    Going from one of the largest potential members of the EU to one of the smallest entrants into the EU - to Malta. Alfred Page has e-mailed us to say: What do you really think about my country's future prospects after joining the EU on May 1st? Although I'm a keen supporter of Malta as a member of the EU I'm a bit afraid because Malta's comparatively small size and lack of natural resources - will we find it harder than other countries? Well Ireland has been one of the smaller members - what's your view?


    Bertie Ahern:

    No I don't, I think Malta met the criteria far quicker than most and their negotiating position was very strong. Their government had to fight a very tough and hard campaign which they won and subsequently went on to win the election. I think they are in a good position. Malta's - what they don't have in their natural resources I think they make up in tourism and they make up in other areas.

    Of course Malta's always been associated with Europe, always close to Europe. And I think again in the movement of people, a country like that - and it's been our experience - free movement of finance and goods - a small country can gain a lot and particularly a country that has a great culture - great historical culture and great tourism product in terms of not only good weather but also extremely historical connections. I think they'll do very well in the Union and they're already in a financially healthy position.


    Roger Hearing:

    Mr. Ahern thank you. Just a reminder that this is Talking Point on the BBC and our special guest today is the Irish Prime Minister, the Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, currently also holding the presidency of the European Union. Let's move now on to a different subject - immigration. Let's listen to this call.


    James Foley:

    Hi I'm James Foley from Chicago, Illinois in America and my question is: In the last 10 years the society of Ireland has changed dramatically. How will your experiences in dealing with immigration in Ireland influence your decisions on Arab immigration to Europe and Eastern Europeans moving into Western Europe?


    Roger Hearing:

    That is a very key subject at the moment for a number of EU members, as you know, what's your answer to that?


    Bertie Ahern:

    Well you know the historical question in Ireland and her position was that for 150 years, in the time of the great famine in Ireland, our emigration was the issue. Every decade of the census in Ireland the population dropped. It has only been in the last decade or so, slightly more than now, that we've seen an increase in population.

    In some of our counties, in some of our areas, of Ireland we only have in recent years an increase in population. So for us now to have immigration from Eastern Europe, from the United States - many Irish people returning - we now have in the United States I think they've 60,000 Chinese students in the United States at the moment, in Ireland we've 38,000. So we're a very small country. Can you imagine the effect of that? Proportionately we've the highest number of Nigerians when we entered the Community coming to Ireland. So it's been a huge change for us.

    You have to tighten up on your residency, you have to tighten up. But we are, at present, the only country that has no restrictions on the 1st May for people coming here to work. We've taken the view that people coming here to work we will honour what we said in the debate here. We have now experienced in the last number of years an increasing number of Eastern Europeans coming to Ireland - Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia - in large numbers, we've an enormous amount of Polish workers now in many areas - financial services, pharmaceuticals, chemicals, in agriculture. We have coped well with this. You have to keep some control.


    Roger Hearing:

    Well you are in fact proposing a control, there's a referendum coming up in June, in fact, which is going to restrict citizenship rights to some extent.


    Bertie Ahern:

    Yes we had really a very open position on citizenship's rights, for the simple reason it didn't arise very much because there was nobody actually coming in. What we're now stating if somebody is in here for three of the four years before a child is born then they can get citizenship. We had an abuse of our constitution where people were coming to Ireland, having a baby, some of them leaving immediately and then claiming EU citizenship in other countries.


    Roger Hearing:

    Because it was the right to claim Irish citizenship.


    Bertie Ahern:

    It was the right to claim Irish citizenship regardless of your fidelity or contact or solidarity or connection with the country in any form.


    Roger Hearing:

    And that also included clearly Northern Ireland as well.


    Bertie Ahern:

    Yes well the Northern Ireland position doesn't change or for a UK citizen but for anyone coming from anywhere else in the UK would still, if the baby was born in the island of Ireland, be an Irish citizen. But we were seeing a situation where people were coming from elsewhere to abuse what was the position which we could not allow to continue.

    But our view on citizenship and our views certainly on people coming to work here, which is the question, has been a very open one and a very tolerant one. And the Irish people have coped I think with this very, very well in what is an enormous change for us in terms of what's happened for the last 150 years.


    Roger Hearing:

    Let's take another call on this.


    Edgaras Drambauskas:

    I'm Edgaras, I live in Lithuania. Later on this year I want to go to Ireland and pursue my profession. I am a qualified nurse, I qualified in 1997. I need to know: will our qualifications be recognised in the EU?


    Roger Hearing:

    Edgaras there obviously concerned about whether his qualifications will be accepted, will they?


    Bertie Ahern:

    By and large they are. In my local hospital, which is one of the biggest hospitals in the country, we've now 29 nationalities. If Edgaras comes under what I've stated 1st May he can come here without a visa, with restriction, his qualifications I think not only within Europe but we have now people working here from Singapore, from Malaysia and their qualifications are accepted, so subject to his clearing those qualifications but most of our - a huge amount of our nurses now are coming from abroad so there should not be difficulties.


    Roger Hearing:

    But he does focus on an issue I think which is of concern to a lot of people in the newly admitted nations to the European Union, that there seems to be a variation of acceptance in different countries, we've mentioned this before, should that really happen in what is a centralised EU?


    Bertie Ahern:

    Well I'm a bit disappointed that so many people have closed up on their barriers, that's why we have been very anxious to keep our position. Obviously we hold a right, if there's a major problem, to change that position. It is our view that there will not be. And obviously if people are coming to work they will only stay if there is work and if there is opportunities. In our case employment has been strong and that has worked very well for us.

    I think the interesting point on qualifications and standardisation of qualifications and recognition of qualifications - I know in the area of medicine and nurses and pharmaceutical, physiotherapy - tending to be in the medical area - there's been a lot of debate about this. But in many other areas there's not and I know there's quite a divergence of views on this.

    I do think the educational bodies within Europe have to try to agree on their own standards authority. The educational council have been working on this and doing this but it is an important area.


    Roger Hearing:

    Is that something you'll be pursuing during the remainder of the presidency?


    Bertie Ahern:

    Yes, and I think it is working well but it is something that I think has to be clear because it's very disappointing for somebody if they feel that they have a masters in their country or doctorate in their country so that they're eminently qualified in their own country and then they take the chance of moving and are told that the standards or whatever isn't there.

    I think within a community the standards should in all professions, as I say in many of them there's not an issue, but I know in teaching and particularly in language teaching there are different views and different standards. But I think in a large community it will probably take time. But they will have to set standards and set guidelines so people know exactly whether their qualification is going to be accepted.


    Roger Hearing:

    On a similar theme, one that seems to occur quite often in connection with immigration, that's the issue of racism when you get movements of populations. I'll read you out a couple of e-mails we've received. Liam, here in Dublin, e-mails us to say: What is the Irish government going to do about rising levels of racism in Ireland? And also Albert Epshteyn from London has e-mailed to say: What's your opinion about the rising anti-Semitism in Europe and a continued anti-Israeli bashing by most of Irish politicians?


    Bertie Ahern:

    Well I wouldn't agree with that. I have met both the European Council and World Council of Jewish groups and indeed they've been very thankful for what we've been doing here and not only here, up until recently we had I think and all parties had a Jewish member of parliament, even though from a country that wouldn't have a huge population. I think the Irish have been over history tended to be very pro-Israel. I think in recent years they have not been very happy with what they've seen - what the Palestinian authority has been subjected to.

    But we're continuing - in the presidency - we've worked extremely hard to have a very fair and balanced view. My foreign minister has been to Israel, he's been to the Middle East. I've had the Palestinian Prime Minister and foreign minister here.

    We've worked hard for a balanced settlement based around a road map and based around an early meeting of the quartet where both Mr Sharon, the Israeli Prime Minister and the Palestinian Prime Minister would meet and try, as difficult as it is, and let's be clear it is very difficult, we must continue to work with the countries in the Middle East to try to find an acceptable way forward. Every day practically I meet somebody from the region, some political leader from the region, trying to do this and we'll keep our focus on this. So I wouldn't accept at all that we're in any way¿..


    Roger Hearing:

    But what about the question of racism more generally?


    Bertie Ahern:

    I think racism more generally as people, I don't think it's a big problem in Ireland but I'm very conscious that you can't be complacent about it. When you have more cultures and more religions and some people who obviously are not very tolerant and want to find arguments and say that you're taking our jobs, you're taking our houses and exaggerate things. You have to work extremely hard in education programmes to explain and to try to get people to settle in and to assist them.


    Roger Hearing:

    Talking about outsiders coming into the expanded EU and the consequences of that, let me read you out this - we received this video link message from Sasha in Moscow.


    Sasha:

    I'd like to ask Mr Ahern, there's a saying all people are equal but some are more equal than others, so will it be easier for Russians to travel in the expanded European Union


    Bertie Ahern:

    Well I think they're outside. There is a Russian Summit later on this year, which I'll co-chair, where they're looking for equal access, they have not got that. And obviously since many countries have not found it possible from the very start on the 1st May to be able to allow people from countries that are enlarging means that they're not going to allow in Russians. But many people in several European countries, and large numbers of Russian people, are coming in, they're coming in on working visas.


    Roger Hearing:

    Let's move now on to what I mentioned in my introduction about your - perhaps many people see as the main Irish achievement so far during their presidency, which is bringing the constitution back into being a piece of workable legislation, potentially, within the EU. Stephen Bennett from Mullingar here in Ireland says: Politics aside, what would you say are the main benefits of the European constitution?


    Bertie Ahern:

    Well I think the main benefits of a constitution for people is just the workability of how the Union operates. The Union is complicated, complicated obviously because it has different frameworks, it has different institutions, it has a parliament, it has a commission, it has member states, in some sense it's intergovernmental. And all the time we're trying to keep that it is a nation - it is a group of nation states working together. So what are the ground rules? We've had - everything's treaty based, the competences of who does what, the role of the European Court of Justice. It is I think, to the ordinary person, difficult and I think ¿


    Roger Hearing:

    It's almost incomprehensible to a lot of people.


    Bertie Ahern:

    Yes difficult. And there's no doubt about that. What the intergovernmental conference has been doing, what's the convention was doing, which was - first of all I think the convention was enormous. There were a few hundred people involved in that - parliamentarians, elected parliamentarians, officials, governments - working together through all the rules that have been there since the Treaty of Rome to bring forward a constitution that set out clearly what it is that Europe wants to do. What are its objectives, what are its aims, what is the treaty base of these, who is responsible for what - we call it competencies - that's what it means, who's responsible for what - and setting them out clearly. The charter of fundamental rights - what rights does a citizen of Europe have. And putting those together in a readable document that can be read by anybody who is not a constitutional lawyer¿


    Roger Hearing:

    Do you really think it is readable?


    Bertie Ahern:

    I do, I do. I don't claim any credit for that but I think the convention did a very good job, I think Valéry Giscard D'Estaing and his group and the various people who've worked on it have produced a very good convention report, a very good constitution. Obviously there are differences to be completed.

    But in the end it is - perhaps I think at the outset, somebody said that anyone in a second level college anywhere in Europe should be able to pick it up and totally understand it - that might be pressing a bit far. But I do believe that anyone looking at it and following it, it only takes a reasonable knowledge in public administration and most people do - most people would see that this is a good document.


    Roger Hearing:

    Well let me pick up on some of those legal intricacies. Clare McConway has e-mailed us from London saying: How will a substantive written EU constitution coexist with written constitutions in some member states, such as Ireland, without compromising or altering the delicate balance of existing constitutional rights?


    Bertie Ahern:

    Well the simple answer to that is that the EU only has competence where the EU has competence. If it's a law or a constitution provision that is just for the nation that doesn't change. The EU law cannot override what is in somebody's constitution and particularly I cannot have any say where they have not competences and of course they have not got competence everywhere.


    Roger Hearing:

    But they have competences in a lot of areas and those laws will override existing laws.


    Bertie Ahern:

    That's why we have constitutional amendments when you have a treaty so that you take on board the treaty. But then you have, like in Nice, when we passed the Nice, we passed the Amsterdam, you pass that treaty and that becomes part of your legal base and we have the Court of Justice which regularly arbitrates on a law.

    But there are other areas and I think your viewer is talking about a situation where perhaps you're talking about coexisting. Well there's not normally a difficulty if you've already accepted and particularly if we've a written constitution.


    Roger Hearing:

    Let's take another call on this.


    Mark Harrison:

    My name's Mark Harrison, I'm from Stevenage in the UK. Why is that even the drafts of the new EU constitution the European Parliament which, after all, is the only directly elected body in the EU, still lacks the genuine power of the Commission and the Council of Ministers?


    Bertie Ahern:

    That's an interesting point isn't it, that's the most democratic part, if you like, of the EU.


    Roger Hearing:

    Yes but I think that parliaments continually gets more power and they have now co-decision on more and more areas - the parliament. I think the good thing that's been happening recently in the last number of years is that the president of the parliament, the presidents of the various groups in the parliaments, have been working far closer with the Commission and with the European Council of heads of state of government, trying to make progress. Because if they don't work together all that you have is people blocking and opposing. And I think we've had a very good period of working together. Should a parliament have all the power just because they're directly elected and the Commission's not there? Well there's a difficulty about that too.


    Bertie Ahern:

    Well a lot of people would say that's what the EU should be like.


    Roger Hearing:

    Yeah well you see the difficulty about that - small countries tends to look at the Commission as being the great - they have a right of initiation of proposals. Would I be happy if all of the powers were away from that, would the big countries, the large countries, the large populated countries, those people who have a huge percentage - Germany have got 20% of the seats in parliament - who would have the right of initiation for a small country? I'm not too sure small countries would like that.

    I like the Commission, not only do I like the Commission, I like a strong Commission. It is a huge protector for small countries. I think it's very relevant to larger countries too. And I think it's right that the initiation is a very strong thing which certainly I would not support.


    Roger Hearing:

    You fear the tyranny of the majority would you?


    Bertie Ahern:

    Yes I think the way people coexist and there's co-decision and there is debate but to take the Commission out of the equation and leave it to at one stage at my level - heads of state of government, whoever is in that position in every country and the parliament, you would be taking away a very fundamental part of what has been a huge success of the European model and I wouldn't be in favour of it.


    Roger Hearing:

    Mr Ahern thank you. Just a reminder that this is Talking Point on the BBC and I'm Roger Hearing and our special guest today is the Irish Prime Minister, the Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, also currently holding the EU presidency. Let's move now on to the economy. Let's take this call from South Africa.


    Matthew Parks:

    Hi, my name is Matthew Parks calling from Cape Town in South Africa. My question to the Taoiseach is with regard to agricultural subsidies. The EU, with good intentions, spends a lot of money on aid to the third world to try to help it, but unfortunately this comes with a lot of interest attached and it cripples the economies and governments at times.

    I'd like to check what progress has the EU made under the Taoiseach's leadership with regard to lifting these agricultural subsidies and lifting the tariffs, which in the long run would do much more to help the south's economies grow and develop and to compete freely in the EU market?


    Roger Hearing:

    I don't know if you heard all of that but he was asking about the EU's Common Agricultural Policy. What's your feeling about that?


    Bertie Ahern:

    I think the answer to his question - we have just completed, in the Irish presidency, a very radical reform of the Common Agricultural Policy and the whole mechanism of how farmers in Europe will be paid from next January.

    Most countries, including Ireland, will implement the new system fully from the 1st January. And of course there are many countries would argue that we need more reforms of the Common Agricultural Policy. A number of points about this - I don't disagree with reform to try to help the caller from Cape Town and to help agriculture produced in the developing world. I think what we're doing in overseas development aid, which he acknowledges, many European countries, and Ireland included, are trying to up our contribution to help in the development into the free market, that is a good thing.

    Why can't it be all done overnight and just fundamentally change or drop subsidies? Well just in a matter of days we have Poland coming in and many other countries coming in with a huge amount of poor farmers who badly are hoping and looking forward to having subsidies to help them to cope with the changes of the market economy in Europe.

    So we're not collectively in Europe at a level that we could just do as the caller would like. But I think we are making the changes and I think the on-going dialogue between the European Union and Africa and I think the new openness and the new awareness that we have to help them to farm in their own regions. Those people who complain about immigration to Europe also I think have an obligation and it's one that I hold and feel that we have to help them in their own countries to develop and to expand so they have a market place and that makes eminent sense.


    Roger Hearing:

    But whose responsibility does the EU have - is it to its own members or is it farmers in other parts of the world?


    Bertie Ahern:

    Well I think we have both, quite frankly, I think we have to help our own Union but I think we also - when it comes to the GATT round and you saw the difficulties that emerging countries created in the last GATT round where they pulled together and said that they're not going to make these changes unless they see developments in other areas. That is standard negotiation but we have to find resolutions to it.

    Obviously, Europe in the first case and the Common Agricultural Policy, has to look after its own citizens but there's a large cost to that. Many people in Europe would complain - the element of their taxes and goes to subsidies - but we have to look after that.

    On the other side of it, we do have a moral obligation and also for economic coherence in the world and under the GATT round - an obligation to try to help the developing world. I hope people are more and more aware of that and we have to help them in their countries and we have to help them to become more sophisticated at farming but that means they need a market for their produce. There's a lot being done in this area. I accept people would say from the developing world that it's too slow but I think there is a lot happening.


    Roger Hearing:

    Let me read you out an e-mail we've received from Mathew Newton in Nottingham in the UK. Mathew says: Since becoming closer to the EU, have you found the Republic of Ireland has gained more than it's lost economically in areas such as trade, inflation and interest rates?


    Bertie Ahern:

    Well the answer to that is a very simple yes. When we joined the European Union we were less than 60% of the GDP of the European Union. I think today we're something like 115% of it. We've had emigration for every year that we ever had. We had negative growth most of the time and there were difficult times when we joined Europe, times of coping with the changes.

    But the opportunities, I mean for Ireland, as Mathew said, the changes for us, we thought we were great in the forties and the fifties when we started having free trade agreements with the UK. Now you have a market economy of 450 million people after the 1st May where you can trade your goods and services if you're competitive enough. But at least your competitive ability is something that is really in your own population. Before you could be as competitive as you liked but you'd nowhere to trade your goods and services. So it has allowed us to develop, to grow and expand. It doesn't mean we've eliminated every problem in society, you never will. But it has certainly changed the whole spirit and the whole wealth of the country and the quality of life.


    Roger Hearing:

    You're about to become a net contributor to the EU is that right?


    Bertie Ahern:

    It's in the next round that Ireland will become a net contributor. It's not that we look forward to that but it is a sign of the success of what we have achieved. And obviously it's only right that having done well and having got help that we share that back into countries that are now joining and I think that shows real solidarity.


    Roger Hearing:

    Let's move now on to relations between the EU and the outside world and specifically relations with the United States in the wake of the Iraq War.

    Patrick Murphy, who's an Irish citizen living in Mexico, says: I wish to express my outrage at your invitation to George Bush to come to Ireland. He's not welcome as a man who broke international law by declaring war on Iraq. Your plea for the people not to demonstrate is shocking. Many of us in Ireland are so outraged by Bush's policies that we will demonstrate peacefully in our thousands as we have the freedom of speech.


    Bertie Ahern:

    Well there's no doubt about that - people have a right to demonstrate. But George Bush is coming here as the President of the United States, we don't decide who the President of the United States is at any time. We're the presidency of the European Union, we would show the same respect to anybody, of any political persuasion.

    I know George Bush well, we work with him very well. We worked with President Clinton before him very well and we've worked with presidents of both Democrat and Republic persuasions over the years.

    The administration have been very helpful to us - President Bush has in Northern Ireland - he's continued on the policies of the previous administration. And we're dealing with EU issues. It is an honour that he comes to our country.

    Of course people have the right to demonstrate and hopefully it is all peacefully. But we're dealing with a European agenda and it is our role to do it and it would be a gross insult for Irish people not to honour that invitation and of course he will receive a very good welcome in Ireland.


    Roger Hearing:

    And of course the EU includes allies of the United States, military allies of the United States, but also Ireland which is neutral. Just on that point of neutrality. John O'Connell who has e-mailed us from Kells here in Ireland, John says: How does Mr Ahern maintain a neutral stance on the Iraq war while permitting military meetings and refuelling of US supply planes in Shannon airport?


    Bertie Ahern:

    Well we don't have military meetings in Ireland. We do allow American troops to use Shannon, we have always - since we joined the United Nations - we've allowed troops to refuel from Vietnam when they were going to Eastern Europe.

    We took support of the United Nations throughout the period while we were on the Security Council and in a period of all the negotiations pre the war we would have liked a clear UN mandate before any action took place, that didn't happen.

    We then had a decision would we allow Shannon to be used or would we not - I think we took the same view, while we're militarily neutral and neutral in every sense - closing off a facility which we always gave to a friendly country when all the other countries in Europe that were taking an opposing view also gave facilities would have been an extreme view and one we would not do against a friendly country.


    Roger Hearing:

    What about the wider EU prospect of this? Joseph Siefert has e-mailed us from Broomfield in the United States. He says: Why is the EU setting itself up for a power struggle with the US similar to what happened during the Cold War?


    Bertie Ahern:

    Well I don't think we are. We're trying very hard in the Irish presidency, and we're a country that's very good friends in very good relationships with the United States and our census say that there's 44 million Irish - though I wouldn't like to try and find them all - but there's a lot of Irish people in the United States and they've always been very friendly to us in all our hours of need and we've had many over our history.

    We've been using our presidency to try to develop and build and unite again from some of the hostilities and some of the difficult moments we had of last year. We are very much basing the bait around multilateralism, where we all must work together and get the United Nations back centrally involved. And I think we're making some good progress in that. And obviously the EU/US summit here is an important part of that because it comes at the end of our presidency, just before the EU/NATO summit in Istanbul. And we would hope to be able to cement some of the work that we've been doing for the last four or five months.


    Roger Hearing:

    Let's move our focus now to Northern Ireland, which is still obviously a very key issue for yourself and of course for the wider European Union. Gavin Hampton has e-mailed us from Bruges to say: Does the Stormont suspension render Northern Ireland a lame duck? The suspension of the institutions - devolved institutions in Northern Ireland. Let's also hear this call.


    Simon Andrews:

    Hello, my name is Simon Andrews from Zurich, Switzerland and my question for Bertie Ahern is: How does Mr Ahern see his role in reducing secular violence in Northern Ireland?


    Bertie Ahern:

    Unfortunately there still is conflict and there still is a lot of hostility and there still is breaches of what would be the norm of civilised society elsewhere. Thankfully we do not have the level of killing and bombing and mayhem that we had for 30 years. We still have a job to do.

    The first question about the Assembly in the north not working, of course that makes life very difficult because what we would like to see is the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement working properly. Which means that the people who were elected last November to those institutions should be working, there should be an administration, an executive its called under the agreement, and that should include people from across the various sectors in Northern Ireland.

    That isn't happening, that's a concern, that's a worry. The main reason it's not working is because we haven't been able yet to end and rid ourselves of paramilitary violence from everybody, from all sides. We have to find a way forward that deals with all of the outstanding issues.


    Roger Hearing:

    But what is that way forward, that's what our questioner is asking?


    Bertie Ahern:

    I think the way forward is that we can look at the totality of the outstanding issues, whoever's agenda they are, different issues, different agenda - whether they're Unionists, Nationalists, Loyalists, Republicans - and together say we're going to implement the entire agenda together and everybody moves on together. As long as we have a position - I won't move until you move - and won't do this until you do that - you'll never get anywhere.

    We've now, I think, in the last six years stopped the violence. We've a new generation growing up now who are not living in violence. We've people living a normal life again. But we now need to have normal political activity - that there's a parliament, an assembly that sits in the north, that there's government, an executive as it's called in the north, working every day, dealing with the issues. Dealing with the everyday issues of education and health and dealing with environmental issues and that they're working together.

    Now to make that happen in the north, it needs people working from different communities. It means Republicans dealing with Unionists and that is a big move. We almost got there a few times but because paramilitarism hadn't stopped, it brought down the institutions.


    Roger Hearing:

    But that's a circular argument - you're saying that normal life can't resume until these institutions are working but these institutions can't work because normal life hasn't resumed.


    Bertie Ahern:

    Because paramilitary activity is still going on. There are people who are associated with political groupings still involved in paramilitarism, not near as much, we're thankful for what's been achieved. But as long as it happens it poisons the democratic system. You can't have it both ways, you can maybe for a while but you can't be a democrat and having a paramilitary organisation and that's the difficulty.

    Now what we are endeavouring to do is we know what the outstanding issues are, we know that we could argue forever about the rights and the wrongs. But I think what we have to do is to try to say listen we have to stop those things that are wrong, we have to look at those things that are positive. We have institutions, we have a system, people have to pledge by rules and as in any democracy then you have to live by those rules.

    And I hope that somewhere during this year that we can succeed in doing that, the people of Northern Ireland deserve it, they want it. They do not want to be ruled from London. They want to rule their own system in those areas that they have again the powers to do it and I think we all have to help them. And Prime Minister Tony Blair and I are very committed to trying to deliver that for them.


    Roger Hearing:

    Well let me ask you finally to respond to an e-mail we received from Brian Clancy here in Dublin. He says: Do you think that Israel and Palestine could learn from the Northern Ireland peace process?


    Bertie Ahern:

    I do. I've stated this many times. You know we were at a stage where we had trouble every day, we had bombs every day, it was on the world news most days, unfortunately we recall that. We had a huge number of deaths as we now see in the Middle East. And people have to work together and we never would have sorted it out militarily, we had to try and find a new accommodation. And while we're not there yet at least we don't have the difficulties that are there.

    And I think although no country's the same or no hostility's the same, no division is the same, a conflict resolution has many things that are similar. And I think the success of the agreement in Northern Ireland in terms of conflict resolution has many parallels that can be used elsewhere.


    Roger Hearing:

    I'm afraid that's all we've got time for today. My thanks to the Taoiseach, the Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern and even to all of you who've called or e-mailed in. You can watch or listen to this programme or indeed any of our previous ones if you go to our website www.bbcnews.com/talkingpoint. But for now from me Roger Hearing and from the rest of the Talking Point team here in Dublin goodbye.




  • RELATED INTERNET LINKS:
    The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites


    PRODUCTS AND SERVICES

    News Front Page | Africa | Americas | Asia-Pacific | Europe | Middle East | South Asia
    UK | Business | Entertainment | Science/Nature | Technology | Health
    Have Your Say | In Pictures | Week at a Glance | Country Profiles | In Depth | Programmes
    Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific