Ireland had key role in framing uniquely democratic treaty

Sat, Sep 12, 2009, 01:00

At all stages in the framing of the Lisbon Treaty, Irish interests have got a good airing, writes GARRET FitzGERALD

PEOPLE OFTEN ask what is the Lisbon Treaty for? Why was it thought necessary to have such a treaty? This treaty is the outcome of the most democratic process ever undertaken in international politics. It proposes a number of reforms that EU leaders identified as being sought by their peoples. These can be summarised under 10 headings:

The need to give clearer expression to the values shared by the peoples of Europe.

The need to make the union’s processes more democratic, and to ensure that national parliaments have a greater role in decision-making.

The need to make it absolutely clear that EU-level decisions can be taken in policy areas where the member states have unanimously agreed that such joint action would be for the greater benefit of their peoples – including in future climate change and energy policy.

The need to limit national vetoes on union decisions to policy areas where one or other state actually has a vital interest. (In our case these areas are foreign policy, defence and security; direct taxation; and international trade agreements).

The need to make it explicitly clear that the union cannot interfere with the right of national governments to provide public services.

The need for the Council of Ministers to take its decisions in public, and for decisions not requiring unanimity to secure the support not only of states with 65 per cent of the union’s population but also of 55 per cent of the states themselves – each of which, regardless of size, will have an equal vote

The need to improve the cohesiveness of the union by replacing the six-monthly rotation of the chairmanship of the European Council of heads of state and government by the appointment of a president of that council for a renewable period of two-and-a-half-years.

The need, while protecting the neutral status enjoyed by six member states, and preserving national vetoes on the content of common EU foreign policies, to facilitate the union in pursuing more effectively its common values and interests in external affairs by the appointment of a high representative for foreign affairs who will be a member of the European Commission.

The need to respect the status of churches and to maintain dialogue with them.

The need to establish the right of member states to withdraw from the union.

To these reforms has been added a Charter of Fundamental Rights designed to ensure that such rights cannot be prejudiced by union legislation.

Now, these are all objectives that I believe the great majority of Irish people would endorse. And, as most of the treaty’s provisions are thus positive ones, objections here have had to take the form of the invention of non-existent provisions, allegedly threatening the introduction of abortion and depriving us of our right to decide our own tax levels and our own wage rates. Moreover, opponents of the treaty have also invented a scare on our military neutrality.

In the remainder of this article I shall describe how the present treaty text emerged from a uniquely democratic process in which Ireland played a key role.

The process began in Laeken, near Brussels, almost eight years ago, with a meeting to identify aspects of the existing treaties that might usefully be modified. This led to a year-long convention in Brussels which, under the chairmanship of former French president Giscard d’Estaing, brought together representatives not just of the governments of member states but, uniquely, also of opposition parties – as well as of the European Parliament and the European Commission.

Ireland played an absolutely key role in this forum.

First of all, John Bruton, as a member of the presidium running the convention, forcibly challenged Giscard when at times he attempted to direct the convention towards personal objectives. Moreover, Proinsias de Rossa led a move to strengthen the treaty’s social provisions.

Next, the mobilisation of 16 smaller countries to ensure some larger states did not bully them into accepting an outcome unduly favourable to the larger states’ interests was organised most effectively by Government representative Dick Roche.

Finally, by a happy chance, both the European Parliament and European Commission delegations were led by Irish people – Pat Cox as president of the parliament, and David O’Sullivan secretary general of the commission. Thus, not alone was the convention the most democratic group ever to have drafted a key international treaty, but Ireland played a crucial role in preparing it. Not surprisingly, the draft treaty that emerged was in almost every respect closely in line with Irish interests.

There was one issue, however, on which there were two views on where Irish interests lay, namely the size of the commission. The Government’s view was that our interests would be best served by retaining permanent membership of the commission – rather than agreeing to a smaller commission in which each state would enjoy commission membership for only 10 out of every 15 years.

An influential commission is important to protect the interests of small countries like Ireland, and because of increased size its influence has visibly declined – and that of some larger states has grown correspondingly. For that reason I saw some advantage in a smaller commission. At the Brussels convention, and consequently in the treaty that emerged, this view prevailed.

However, as a concession to Irish public and government opinion, that decision – the only matter of any significance on which the Irish Government lost out at the convention – has now been reversed. If the Lisbon Treaty is ratified – and only if that happens – we will now be back to a commission of 27.

Thus everything that we sought at the Brussels convention is now provided for – in addition to which we now have our three guarantees. That is why our electorate should vote to ratify this treaty, which will enable Ireland to recover its currently weakened role in Europe.