Mr Cowan told a special Dáil debate on legislation to allow a second Nice Treaty referendum that the Government had secured special recognition for Irish neutrality.
Mr Cowan strongly urged voters to reverse their decision of June 2001 and endorse the Nice Treaty in a renewed vote planned for October or November.
The Dáil reconvened in a special session to debate the referendum legislation yesterday afternoon. Outside, a small but vocal group of protesters criticised the Government’s lack of respect for the will of voters as expressed on June 7, 2001.
Independent Dublin TDs Tony Gregory and Finian McGrath told the demonstrators the new referendum was a travesty and Deputy McGrath said 95% of the Irish media supported the Nice campaign.
Mr Cowan told Dáil deputies that Taoiseach Bertie Ahern had secured agreement at a special EU leaders’ summit in Seville last June that Ireland would not participate in a common defence arrangement.
The Minister stressed that any change in that situation would have to be approved by the Irish people in a separate referendum.
In a robust defence of the EU Treaty, Mr Cowan said it would promote jobs and trade. “Every single person in this country is directly affected by our membership of the EU, whether as a worker, an employer, a farmer, a trade unionist, a parent or a consumer,” Mr Cowan said.
The Minister stressed that a second No vote would damage the dozen European states seeking membership. It would also damage Irish interests through loss of friends and influence right across mainland Europe.
But Green Party TD John Gormley said the EU Treaty was bad for both Ireland and Europe. He accused the Government of patronising voters by claiming they did not know what they had voted for in June 2001.
Mr Gormley also rejected Government arguments that EU assurances on neutrality could have real effect. He said the 1996 EU Treaty of Amsterdam and the decision to join the
NATO-linked Partnership for Peace meant Ireland was no longer neutral.
Labour leader Ruari Quinn said the EU had succeeded hugely in pooling national sovereignty. He said it had produced half a century of peace and prosperity.
The Labour leader said his party was backing Nice because the Government had resolved views about neutrality. He also said that 10 applicant states were waiting on membership within the next two years.
Mr Quinn also warned voters not to give in to the temptation to punish the Government for broken election promises saying this issue could be settled in European Parliament and Local Elections in 2004.
Fine Gael Foreign Affairs spokesman Gay Mitchell also strongly urged a Yes vote. Mr Mitchell said Ireland’s true independence had only begun with the prosperity which came from EU membership over the last 30 years.