Does Lisbon Treaty enhance democracy?

Wed, Jun 4, 2008, 01:00

Pat Coxargues yes and Pádraig Mac Lochlainnargues no.

Lisbon is bad for Irish democracy and the Government should seek a renegotiation of the proposed treaty, writes Pádraig Mac Lochlainn.

INCREASINGLY PEOPLE are worried that decisions that govern their lives are being taken at such a distance that they have no ability to influence them. Citizens rely on governments to defend their interests and ensure that democracy is protected.

On June 12th the electorate will have to decide whether the Lisbon Treaty promotes democracy or whether it undermines it by reducing our influence on the EU Commission and Council of Ministers while at the same time giving additional powers to these institutions.

This treaty is not about our place in Europe. Ireland's place is secure regardless of what decision the electorate take.

We need to look at this treaty and decide whether it is in Ireland's interests or whether we should send the Government back to negotiate a better deal.

The Lisbon Treaty began life in 2001. EU leaders were concerned with the EU's democrat deficit and established a Convention on the Future of Europe.

The convention aimed to create "more democracy, transparency and efficiency" in an attempt to "bring the citizens . . . closer to the European design and the European institutions".

Green Party TD John Gormley, who participated in the convention, was vocal in his criticism saying "most of the real negotiations, unfortunately, did take place behind closed doors. There were over 1,000 amendments offered but no votes were taken on any of them and most were never even discussed".

Sinn Féin was excluded despite requesting a place.

The constitution, produced by the convention, was then rejected in referendums in France and the Netherlands in 2005. Rather than respecting the democratically expressed wishes of the people of France and the Netherlands, the EU announced a period of reflection.

They then returned with almost exactly the same set of proposals, renamed as the Lisbon Treaty.

This context is important because it highlights inherent problems in the design and ratification of the treaty. We are being told that the treaty will enhance democracy.

Yet neither the convention nor the response to the French and Dutch votes could be described as truly democratic.

It is hardly surprising, then, that the treaty fails in its central task of democratising the EU. When you examine the detail of the treaty it is clear that it is a bad deal for Ireland and the EU.

The treaty removes Ireland's right to a permanent commissioner for five out of every 15 years.

This means that we will not have a representative on the body responsible for drafting and implementing laws.

While commissioners are officially independent, it is widely acknowledged that member state interests find their way into the detail of the legislation via the individual commissioners.

For a small country like Ireland, it is vital to have a permanent voice at the European Commission table, especially when you consider that this country only has a small number of MEPs and our voting strength on the Council of Ministers will be halved if this treaty is passed.

While the larger states will not have a permanent seat on the commission, Britain, Germany and Italy almost double their voting strength on the Council of Ministers and have far more MEPs than Ireland.

Ireland's representatives on the commission have played a crucial role over the years. And no matter how good a relationship the Irish Government builds with EU commissioners from other states it is no substitute for an Irish voice at the table.

In addition to these procedural changes, the treaty would also remove 68 member state vetoes at the Council of Ministers, in highly sensitive areas such as energy, asylum, immigration, judicial co-operation and the inclusion of health and education in international trade agreements.

Most troubling, from a democratic point of view, is Article 48 which gives the European Council the power to amend EU treaties.

At present any amendments have to be agreed unanimously among the 27 EU governments and in this State put to the people in a referendum.

Article 48 dispenses with the requirement for a referendum in all but a limited number of areas such as defence and granting new legal competencies.

Future governments could give away key vetoes on issues such as tax, or agree to important institutional changes or expansion of existing EU competencies, without consulting the people.

Advocates of the treaty argue that these negatives are compensated for in a number of ways.

The extension of co-decision to a larger number of areas in the European Parliament is to be welcomed.

However Ireland, North and South, currently has 16 of the parliament's 785 MEPs. The extension of co-decision has to be looked at alongside the loss of a commissioner and reduction in voting strength at the Council of Ministers - all of which further weaken Ireland's position within the EU.

The new measures for member state parliaments and citizens are weak in the extreme.

They provide no meaningful form of intervention in the legislative process, and exist merely as cosmetic window-dressing aimed to take the bad look off what is clearly a bad treaty.

I believe that a better deal is possible. Sinn Féin is calling on people to vote No on June 12th and give the Irish Government a strong mandate for new negotiations.

All states should retain a permanent commissioner. Voting strength at the Council of Ministers should reflect the fact that states come to council as equals.

Member state parliaments and citizens must be given meaningful forms of participation in the legislative process, including in this State the absolute right for citizens to have the final say in any significant changes to EU treaties. And key strategic vetoes on public services and taxation should be strengthened.

The Yes campaign is telling us there is no plan B, that by voting No we will become the pariahs of Europe. The whole point of a referendum is for the people to decide, freely and democratically, whether the proposal in front of us is good or bad.

True democrats will accept the outcome of the referendum, whether it is a Yes or a No. In politics, like life, there is always a plan B.

Pádraig Mac Lochlainn is director of Sinn Féin's Lisbon Treaty campaign

YES 

Lisbon offers greater participation in EU decision-making. If it is rejected, more restrictive Nice Treaty provisions will apply, writes Pat Cox.

THE SOVEREIGNTY of the Irish people is a gift won by freedom, not to be preserved in a jar of formaldehyde and gazed upon, but to be used judiciously in the light of prevailing circumstances. Since 1972 we have consecutively chosen intelligent interdependence with our partner states in Europe over splendid isolation.

This has served us well, not requiring us to be less Irish but permitting us as Irish to be more effective in the pursuit of our values, interests and preferences. In net terms, Ireland's freely chosen European engagement has been a powerfully positive enabling framework for our small state.

The Lisbon Treaty addresses twin challenges: internally, of a larger and more diverse EU, and externally of a more complex and interdependent world in terms that seek to make the Union fit for the 21st century. Since this is consistent with our interests, Ireland has been a willing actor in this process of change, subject to protecting a number of "red lines", including unanimity at European Council level on direct taxation, protection of our military neutrality and the reaffirmation that nothing in the amended treaties can interfere with the right to life, as defined in Bunreacht na hÉireann.

In democratic terms the treaty proposes a balanced package of measures respecting the principles of subsidiarity (i.e. decisions should be taken closest to the people whom such decisions affect), active civil society, the equality of member-states, the double legitimacy of states and peoples and a system of checks and balances.

There is a new role for national parliaments, as guardians of subsidiarity, to check that policy proposals do not overstep the mark, permitting them, as a last resort, to refer persistent concerns to the European Court of Justice for a binding ruling.

Provision is also made for a "Citizens' Initiative" where at least one million citizens from a number of member states can invite the European Commission to act on any matter of citizen concern regarding treaty implementation.

Until 2014 each member-state retains one commissioner. Thereafter, Ireland, like all others, will have the right to nominate a commissioner for two of every three commissions.

Critics exaggerate the effect of this by ignoring the existing law. The default position if Ireland votes No is the Treaty of Nice. In a legally-binding Protocol on Enlargement, Nice already provides that after the 27th member-state takes up its duties "the number of members of the commission shall be less than the number of member states", starting already in 2009.

Thanks to Irish leadership, the principle of equality of member states has been defined in the Lisbon Treaty as "strictly equal rotation between member states", meaning that there is no prospect of larger states claiming special privileges.

A strong and coherent commission focused on the general European good and open to all on an equal basis is in the interests of small states such as ours. We got what we wanted in Lisbon.

The treaty gives no new exclusive competence to the EU. A comprehensive table in the Forum on Europe's summary of the Lisbon Treaty lists new areas of shared competence between the EU and member states and areas shifting to Qualified Majority Voting (QMV) from unanimity. In total, these come to 33 examples, 10 of which relate to Justice and Home Affairs, which Ireland may opt into or not.

Sinn Féin is a member of the forum but, like other rejectionists, persistently ignores this research and prefers instead to exaggerate the extent of change by conflating it with existing treaty provisions on majority voting.

Where decisions change from unanimity to qualified majority, these have been democratically counter-balanced by the check and balance of increased co-decision for the European Parliament. That parliament, as I have reason to know, is a tribune of the people, holds the executive to account - as witnessed by the enforced resignation on issues of accountability of an entire commission in 1999 - is a budget authority, set to gain further powers under Lisbon, and acts as a legislator. In its last mandate (1999-2004), it dealt with 403 laws under co-decision, contrary to the recent ignorant assertion of at least one senior Irish commentator that it makes no law.

From 2014 at the earliest there will be double majority voting on the council, representing 55 per cent of states and 65 per cent of population, confirming the principle of the double legitimacy of states and peoples.

Through equality of member states Ireland would account for 1/27th of the total council voting weight versus our position today under Nice, where we constitute 1/49th of the voting weight (seven votes of 345). This is an improvement.

Additionally, under Nice, member states may insist on double majority voting, which if Lisbon was defeated they almost certainly would do, with a threshold of 62 per cent of the EU's population.

Lisbon critics omit this inconvenient truth when they exaggerate claims of future loss of Irish voting influence on the council. Finally, when it acts as legislator, the council must act in public as befitting any open democratic voting procedure.

Sinn Féin and Libertas are colleagues in arms in misrepresenting future changes to the treaty as "self-amending". None of the procedures foreseen is either automatic or passive, as their misleading use of language implies. Every procedure requires unanimity, most must be ratified in accordance with member states' constitutional arrangements and those to which this rule does not apply can be vetoed not just by governments but also by national parliaments.

The Lisbon Treaty includes - for the first time - a divorce clause for a member-state to negotiate an orderly withdrawal from the EU, the ultimate, if extreme, guarantee of sovereignty.

Damning real democratic progress with faint praise, ignoring the default legal position under the Nice Treaty and exaggerating and misrepresenting independently-verifiable facts are part of the stock in trade of the rejectionists, who pretend to be for Europe but who constantly oppose the Europe on offer, a thin veneer that lacks credibility.

They were wrong before. They are wrong now. I would urge people to vote and would request them to vote Yes, confident in the belief that what is proposed can serve Irish democracy well in future.

Pat Cox is a former MEP and president of the European Parliament and is actively campaigning for a Yes vote