21 NOVEMBER 2001

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On being a small country in the EU

KURT SANSONE spoke to Irish Green MEP Nuala Ahern on Ireland’s status within the European Union and its similarities to Malta

Has the EU subdued Ireland’s independence?
The Irish experience is an interesting model. We are a nation that fought hard to gain independence. We cherish it very much. EU membership helped us deal with the larger international issues without losing our hard-earned sovereignty.
Independence must be viewed within the wider context of globalisation. Large multi-national corporations can threaten a country’s independence. Ireland has a very open economy exposed to outside EU investment. We see ourselves as an interface between US companies and Europe. Being part of the EU has helped us implement environmental and social legislation, which as a small country, Ireland could not have implemented on its own.

Are you saying that the EU is one way of controlling globalisation?
Yes. The EU is the only collection of states able to withstand the accesses of globalisation. Admittedly, we are not doing enough because I would like to see environmental legislation being implemented properly with more enforcement.
Most EU governments find it good enough to have laws on paper and that is not acceptable. The EU has to come down harder on fines or else threaten to withdraw funding for certain projects.
As a member of the Green Party I firmly believe that the EU has to put greater emphasis on cleaner technology and improved public transport. In this regard Malta may have much to gain.
On a global level the EU is the single largest body to lobby hard for environmental and social legislation. Contrary to the World Trade Organisation, the EU is a democratic representation of peoples. If the EU does not voice its concern no single country will do so.

The environment is a big issue for accession states like Malta. Is it fair that the EU expects these countries to implement all legislation in a relatively short period of time when EU member states have done so over a longer period?
The environment is definitely a huge issue in all accession countries. We cannot go back to the Soviet era environmental degradation in the Eastern European states. Similarly, the Mediterranean countries have to get their act together.
It is perfectly true that accession countries have to implement what has taken years to materialise in current member states. This is why the EU has to provide the right funds to enable change. Unfortunately for Malta, the freezing of the application in 1996 made the country lose out on a number of pre-accession funds that could have been utilised in this regard.

The Irish have been called selfish for rejecting the Nice Treaty in a referendum earlier this year. What are your comments?
As a sovereign state it is our right to decide how best to amend our constitution. It is wrong for other countries to call us selfish.
Ireland has always been a neutral state and neutrality is a very essential and sensitive issue for the Irish people. Since the foundation of the United Nations, Ireland has been active in a number of UN peacekeeping missions. We have also played a major part in the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. We do not intend having our international identity submerged just because we are EU members.
Another referendum with the same question would not be acceptable and our hope is that the new treaty due in 2004 will be discussed in a convention form, which includes heads of states and representatives of civil society.

Was the Irish Nice vote a vote against the enlargement process?
No, we were not asked to vote on enlargement. As the EU Commission President Romano Prodi said, legally enlargement can go ahead under previous treaties.
The Nice rejection by the Irish people shows that even a small country can have clout in the EU. We were applauded by a number of EU citizens in other countries for showing our determination to stand fast on the issue despite the negative criticism from heads of state

Do Ireland’s economic interests coincide with those of Germany and France?
No, they do not necessarily coincide. Our geographic location on the periphery of Europe with the Dollar on one side and the Sterling on the other puts us in a different economic situation. When Ireland adopted certain fiscal reforms to encourage investment we were criticised, but as a small country we have our interests to protect. This is another reason why the Irish voted against the Nice Treaty. However, the Irish stand made the EU Commission more conscious of the need to ensure prosperity in all regions of the Union, even those as far flung as Ireland.

How does the EU view Malta?
Undoubtedly the EU would warmly welcome Malta into its fold but at the end of the day it is up to the Maltese people to decide their fate.
The islands occupy a strategic location in the heart of the Mediterranean. Over recent years the EU has focused more on Eastern European states but with the events unfolding after the 11 September attacks Europe has to renew its focus on the Middle East and the Mediterranean, and Malta could play an important role in this regard.
Creating prosperity in the Mediterranean region is one way of ensuring European security. Prosperity cannot be achieved in isolation.

How has Ireland benefited from membership?
We managed to upgrade our infrastructure with funds obtained from the EU and in the process we attracted high tech industries from the United States. Our participation in the Eurozone has also played an important part in our prosperity.
I would think that the advantages outweigh the disadvantages if Malta were to become a member but again it all depends on your decision, which I will fully respect.


The Business Times, Network House, Vjal ir-Rihan San Gwann SGN 07
Tel: (356) 382741-3, 382745-6 | Fax: (356) 385075 | e-mail: editorial@networkpublications.com.mt