European Union: Integration and Enlargement

European Union: Integration and Enlargement

Publication of NESC Report: European Union: Integration and Enlargement

The National Economic and Social Council has today published a major new report on Ireland and the EU. This report provides an overview of European integration and the major challenges that now face the EU and assesses where Ireland's balance of interests lies in relation to these developments.

The Report is presented in three parts under the headings:

  • Part I: Perspectives on European Integration
  • Part II: Economic and Social Policy
  • Part III: Eastern Enlargement of the Union

Perspectives on European Integration

The Report demonstrates that perspectives which view the policy-making process in Europe as one where policies are handed down from the centre or, alternatively, one where member states decide their policy approaches domestically and then bargain at the centre, are inadequate to capture the intricacies of the existing decision-making system. It proposes an approach based on a critique and synthesis of these opposing perspectives. This new approach, which informs the analysis in the Report, recognises that Europe has, and will continue to have, a complex decision-making system which occurs at many levels and involves numerous national and cross-national groups. The relevance of different levels of decision-making and different actions varies from one policy area to another. It is emphasised that, in seeking to form realistic expectations about EU policies and influence decisions, the Irish debate on Europe must be informed by an accurate feel for this decision-making process.

Economic and Social Policy and Eastern Enlargement

In Part II of the Report, five important areas of existing policy-making in the EU are discussed and Ireland's interest in each is identified. These areas are: European policies for growth, competitiveness and employment, European social policy, economic and monetary union, public finance in the EU and cohesion. Each chapter surveys the existing EU policies in these areas and identifies the likely direction of future policy. The main questions addressed in the Report concern how Ireland should view EU activity in each of these areas; whether developments in these areas create particular threats or opportunities; should these issues shape Irish attitudes to the revision of the EU Treaty and whether Ireland's convergence towards average EU income levels alters its perspective on European integration and the myriad issues that need to be addressed at EU level in the coming years. In Part III, the Report analyses the likely impact of Eastern enlargement on the Union and, specifically, on Ireland's interests. The analysis identifies direct effects, such as the impact on trade and investment, and indirect effects which arise due to the impact of enlargement on existing EU institutions and policies. The impact on the Common Agricultural Policy, the Community Support Framework and decision-making institutions are of most relevance to Ireland.

Key Conclusions

The Council's analysis of European policy developments in the selected economic and social areas - employment, competitiveness, social Europe, EMU, EU public finance, cohesion and Eastern enlargement - suggests that none of these issues create an over-riding substantive concern which should, on its own, shape Ireland's approach to Treaty revision or to European integration. This has an important positive implication: Ireland's concerns in the Treaty revision are mainly institutional, rather than directly substantive. In other words, Ireland's main concerns in the Treaty revision relate to its impact on the way in which the EU is governed, and decisions are reached, rather than the direction of specific EU policies, as currently outlined. Ireland does, of course, have a substantive interest in new Treaty provisions on employment and a Europe-wide area of freedom, security and justice. However, the Treaty revisions which can support these goals are themselves, partly institutional. While it is not the role of the NESC to advise government on these institutional and political issues, the Council sees merits in the evolving decision-making system of the EU and would not see Irish interests served by any institutional reform which diminished the Community institutions - either by revoking the Commission's traditional role or by rearranging Council procedures in a way which concentrated power in the hands of large member states.

The Council's general perspective on European economic and monetary union was outlined in its 1989 report, Ireland in the European Community: Performance, Prospects and Strategy. There, the Council argued that Ireland's strategic interest lay in full economic and monetary union. Since then the EMU project has advanced significantly. The details of EMU were agreed in the Treaty on European Union (1992) and by the Irish people in their overwhelming support for the treaty. Ireland's ambition to participate in EMU was confirmed by the Council in its 1990 Strategy Report, and its active participation in the transition to a European currency has subsequently been supported by the Council in its 1993 and 1996 Strategy reports. While recognising that in addition to providing significant opportunities EMU also poses challenges for the Irish economy, the Council sees no reason for a revision of this overall approach to EMU, nor for any break in the wide consensus in favour of Ireland's participation in EMU on its establishment in 1999.

The Council concludes that it would be mistaken to believe that Ireland's convergence towards average EU income levels switches its interests from its long-standing support of progressive European integration towards an ࠬa carte Europe or a looser free trade area.

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