Cox and Higgins cross swords over Lisbon in e-mail duel

Sat, Aug 29, 2009, 01:00

THE LISBON Treaty referendum campaign is being fought to date largely outside mainstream politics. Two of the more significant groupings are Ireland for Europe, headed by former president of the European Parliament Pat Cox, and Vote No To Lisbon, an anti-Lisbon alliance that includes Sinn Féin and the Socialist Party.

The Irish Timesinvited two leading protagonists, Cox and Socialist Party MEP Joe Higgins, to an e-mail duel over the issues. This is an edited version of their exchanges.

Pat Cox: Ireland stands at a critical juncture. We are living in distressing times for ourselves and our country. The EU is a vital part of the solution to our challenges. EU membership has been the best partnership this small State has ever had. It has provided unprecedented levels of financial solidarity to assist Irish agriculture and our regional and social development. It is the largest, richest market for our export-dependent economy, a place where we earn our bread and butter. Funding from the European Central Bank has played a key role in stabilising our fragile financial and banking system since the onset of the current economic crisis.

A Yes vote is part of our fight back on the road to recovery.

When we vote on October 2nd, we face a major national choice. Some say it will make no difference, that “they can’t throw us out, we’re still in even if we vote No”. While it is true in law that we remain a member state however we choose to vote, the EU is not about them and us. No one wants to or will throw us out.

The EU is built on partnership and mutual respect. That our partners have gone to such lengths to accommodate our concerns with legally binding guarantees for Ireland illustrates the point. Most of all such casual indifference misses a key point that Ireland has been not merely a member but also a respected player in the EU.

Team play counts. Reputation, standing and team spirit matter to all relations – personal, national and international. Reputation and the influence it carries for a small state is hard earned but can be easily squandered. The result of our vote will speak volumes about how we, the Irish, see ourselves early in the 21st century and about where we feel we belong.

Joe Higgins:These “distressing times” Pat – meaning the catastrophic economic crisis – arise not just from the Fianna Fáil/PD-sponsored ultra greed of the property speculators and big bankers but also from the right-wing, neo-liberal economic policies imposed by the EU over the past 20 years.

International and EU-based financial institutions were only able to gamble so disastrously with the wealth of society because the policy of liberalisation, deregulation and privatisation, pushed so relentlessly by the EU, gave them carte blanche to do so.

I wouldn’t over exaggerate the unadulterated benefits of the Common Agricultural Policy which has seen farm families decimated in rural Ireland and smaller to middle-sized farms struggling to survive, while giant supermarket chains rip them off, courtesy of the unrestrained competition so beloved by the EU Commission. That’s not to talk about the threatened wipeout of inshore fishing communities.

Eulogies to how “good” the EU has been for Ireland should not distract from the kind of Europe which the Lisbon Treaty would create in the decades ahead which after all is what we are voting on.

Courtesy of Lisbon that Europe would see a sharp diminution in the democratic check which ordinary citizens could exercise over their own governments and EU policy through a wholesale removal of the right to veto and the rebalancing of voting weights when prime ministers and ministers meet; a further intensification of neo-liberalism economic policy; endorse formally the European Court of Justice rulings which allow contractors to exploit migrant workers in the name of “freedom to establish” business across borders; and dictate further investment in the obscene trade in armaments. And much more.

A No vote would certainly enrage the political and economic elite of the EU, but could, for hundreds of millions of ordinary working people in Europe, be a rallying cry that a very different society could be built on a very different basis where their welfare would take precedence over corporate profit.

Cox:Joe, this far leftist ideology is one that has always urged Irish voters to reject Europe at every time of asking, advice that has been consistently wrong. It is wrong now. Europe cannot and does not “impose” policy. Policies are made in the EU by our elected governments and our elected MEPs. EU policy has created prosperity, jobs and opportunity for tens of millions of Europeans and for several million small and medium enterprises which constitute the backbone of employment in the EU.

Since connecting to Europe our exports have grown by 6,000 per cent; our labour force has doubled. Average wages have gone from 60 per cent of the EU average to 138 per cent. Our individual and collective standards of living transformed from our being the poorest region of the British regional economy to one of the better-off states in the EU.

The voters’ choice in favour of the Single European Act released a new energy for our small society and economy with unprecedented growth in small business start-ups and a level of foreign investment in Ireland, particularly from the USA, which has been greater than all such investment in Brazil, Russia, India and China combined.

These are real strengths on which to base a recovery. More opportunity and more jobs in Ireland have been inextricably linked to our place in Europe. This is not the time to spurn a winning formula.

So which kind of Europe is proposed by Lisbon? The treaty text pledges to promote “a social market economy aiming at full employment and social progress”. It has been described by John Monks, secretary general of the European Trade Union Confederation and the EU’s leading trade unionist, as “a step forward . . . in relation to the enforcement of the Charter on Fundamental Rights, commitments to full employment, the social market economy and public services”.

An unlikely collection of “neo-liberal” sentiments, Joe!

Higgins:There you go again, Pat, talking in general about the last 36 years and studiously avoiding the major changes proposed for Europe in the Lisbon Treaty. Changes which are in the interest of EU big business and the political and military elite but detrimental to ordinary working people who are the big majority.

So let’s be specific, Pat. You mention Lisbon promoting “a social market economy aiming at full employment and social progress”. Fine words, echoing the 1916 Proclamation “cherishing the children of the nation equally”. Look at the reality of what the market has delivered – rocketing unemployment causing major hardship for millions and massive cuts in public services.

So John Monks says that including the Charter of Fundamental Rights with Lisbon is a “step forward”. What did he say when the European Court of Justice decreed in the Ruffert case that the EU treaties meant a Polish contractor was quite entitled to pay migrant construction workers in Germany 50 per cent of the agreed pay rates in the industry, thus joining in the race to the bottom? He said the judgment was “an open invitation for social dumping”.

When the ECJ followed by ruling it was illegal for Luxembourg to insist on social protections for posted workers, Monks again said that the judgment was “asserting the primacy of the economic freedoms over fundamental rights” and that it “turns the Posted Workers Directive from an instrument that was intended to protect workers . . . into an aggressive market tool”.

Do you deny that EU treaties allow this kind of exploitation? Do you deny that including the Charter of Fundamental Rights will not change this one iota since article 52 of the charter says: “Rights recognised by this Charter which are based on Community Treaties, shall be exercised under the conditions and within the limits defined by those Treaties” – thereby institutionalising the rights of business to exploit workers in the name of the “social market”?

Cox: And there you go again Joe – zero acknowledgement of the record – precisely because the overwhelmingly positive effects of Ireland’s EU membership are an inconvenient truth for those such as you who have only ever urged rejection of the real Europe, available through dialogue, partnership, mutual respect and consensus. It is precisely “ordinary working people” in Ireland and elsewhere who have gained from Europe’s commitment to peace with prosperity.

You know as an elected representative that any parliamentary seat is hard won. In the 26 other member states of the union over 7,400 elected MPs and senators have voted on the Lisbon Treaty. Eighty-five per cent of these have voted Yes. Unless you reject the foundations of parliamentary democracy itself, these are not the mythic elite of your imagination but the people’s chosen representatives.

Let me return to John Monks. Yes, he expressed concerns but your selectivity ignores his conclusion. “Those [ECJ] judgments are based on the existing treaties, not the Lisbon Treaty. The Lisbon Treaty with the newly enforceable Charter will help, not hinder, our [ie the ETUC’s] position.” These are his own words. His conclusion is exactly the opposite of yours.

Let’s return to what we are voting on. I totally reject your earlier assertion regarding the citizen and democracy. The modest, not wholesale, increase in majority voting is accompanied by the democratic check and balance of an increased say for our elected MEPs, including you, through an extension of the power of co-decision. Our TDs and Senators will have a new role in the early scrutiny of draft EU law. Our Ministers will be obliged to vote in public when they make EU law, so no more “blame it on Brussels”, time to stand up and be counted. We the people will have a new Citizens’ Initiative right, all in all an improvement not a diminution in the quality of EU democracy.

In substance, what exactly is the realistic EU alternative that you propose to the Irish people?

Higgins: As space is running out, let me be succinct. You ignore article 52 of the charter which screams out that its “set of rights” are limited by EU treaties – the same treaties on which the ECJ relied to justify worker exploitation. So no new right then for workers but an institutionalisation of the status quo.

Some 85 per cent of national parliamentarians in the EU may have endorsed the Lisbon Treaty. That is not the same as being endorsed by 85 per cent of the people of Europe. In Ireland about 98 per cent of the parliament endorsed it but a majority of the people rejected it. Their fellow Europeans weren’t given the opportunity to decide.

How does “Europe’s commitment to peace with prosperity” sit with the institutionalisation of the armaments industry in the Lisbon Treaty, demanding more research and technological development for weapons of horrific destruction which are routinely flogged for billions to countries like India and Pakistan where millions live in abject poverty? Or human rights enhanced by flogging them to Saudi Arabia?

My alternative is a Europe whose major wealth and governance is taken from the hands of the multinational corporations, financial speculators and arms merchants and instead run democratically, by and for the big majority. In this way we can plan for a secure life for all, protecting the environment and ending murderous conflicts.

Cox: Nice try, Joe, on article 52 which, as you say, sets the scope for the rights guaranteed under the charter. Pity you fail to understand that on the issue of “employment, social protection and social inclusion” the Lisbon Treaty will be a game-changer, obliging EU institutions, including the Court of Justice, to take full account of these issues so important to workers’ and citizens’ rights. Your logic is stuck in Nice but our invitation is to move on towards the more enlightened Lisbon.

You’re right, Joe, parliamentary votes are not the same as referendums. However, when the Constitutional Treaty was tested by referenda in four member states, 27 million Europeans voted Yes as against 23 million who voted No. Your ever-despairing and doom-laden caricature of European Common Foreign and Security Policy deserves a lengthier dialogue than a one-line response. But Europe’s record of soft power – ie diplomacy – and humanitarianism is one of which Irish people can be justly proud.

As regards your alternative – Europe is a partnership of 27 member states, a more complex place than Planet Higgins in which to determine an acceptable consensus. Which is exactly what the Lisbon Treaty is.

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