Ireland needs an EU that can change with the times

Sat, May 24, 2008, 01:00

OPINION:Lisbon will make the EU more effective and more democratic. It is the result of years of negotiations between 27 democratic governments. Just because we can vote No doesn't mean we should, writes  JOHN BRUTON.

I AM AVAILING of the columns of The Irish Timesto say, in my personal capacity, why I will be going home to vote Yes to the Lisbon Treaty.

I took part in the convention that drafted the EU constitution, which provides much of the material now contained in the Lisbon Treaty. This was all done in the open. The convention had its debates in public. Its documents were open to public scrutiny. Opposition as well as Government politicians were involved. Its activities were publicised in Ireland through the Forum on Europe and the Oireachtas Committee on European Affairs. It produced a consensus report which underlies the treaty the Irish now have before them.

How will the Lisbon Treaty improve things? In a nutshell, the Lisbon Treaty will enable the European Union to be more effective in fighting cross-border crimes, like drug smuggling, frauds and human trafficking. It will make the EU more democratic by opening up the Council of Ministers to the public and giving the Dáil and Seanad, together with other national parliaments, a chance to block EU laws before they even go to the European Parliament and Council of Ministers. It will also simplify complex EU procedures and make the European Commission more efficient.

In particular, the treaty improvements on cross-border crime are important to every parish in Ireland, where the drugs trade can cause so much havoc to families.

The treaty would require the EU, in its own activities, to respect an explicit code of human rights of the kind to which member states already bind themselves as signatories to the European Convention on Human Rights.

When we vote on the Lisbon Treaty, we should keep the big picture in mind.

The European Union is the greatest peace process of the 20th century. It is the world's only multinational democracy. No other region of the world has pooled sovereignty among nations that once were at war as the EU has done.

This generation of Irish people is blessed not to have experienced war directly. But we understand that if history's errors are forgotten, they will be repeated. Let us not forget the thousands of Irish people who died in two World Wars caused by rivalries between European powers, rivalries that have been permanently removed by the existence of the European Union. It could be argued that it is the existence of the European Union, more than Irish neutrality, that has spared Ireland the effects of European war since 1945.

The EU's enlargement to include the countries of central and eastern Europe has guaranteed democracy, property rights and peace in those parts of Europe as well. That is good for Ireland. We may live on an island, but peace and economic stability in Europe is important to us too, and the EU has helped achieve that.

If the EU did not exist today, we would probably have to invent it because there are so many cross-border problems that individual European states are too small to cope with on their own.

What of Ireland's low corporate taxes? In the convention, I fought very hard to ensure that the veto on corporate taxation for each state be kept in the draft constitution, because I was taoiseach when the present 12.5 per cent rate was introduced. I am glad to say that this line has been fully preserved in the Lisbon Treaty.

What about Irish agricultural concerns regarding the Doha Round of trade negotiations at the World Trade Organisation? Some Irish farmers are old enough to remember the days before the EU when we were dependent on the British market with no referee to protect our interests. Of course, European Union policies, on trade or any other matters, will and always should be open to legitimate criticism. The European Union is, after all, a human institution with human frailties.

But Irish people already have more than adequate democratic means of working to remedy any defects in EU policy. We have Irish Ministers in the Council of Ministers, members in the European Parliament and we will continue to have strong influence through the European Commission as well as through the new role for the Dáil under the Lisbon Treaty. These are the best ways to influence policy.

Voting No in a referendum that is seen as vital by Europe's democratically elected leaders would be a blunt and potentially destructive approach and should not be used when so many better ways to influence EU policy are available to us.

Is the Lisbon Treaty not too complex? Most legal documents are complex. One only has to look at the deeds of conveyance of a house to see that. But complexity is not in itself a reason for rejecting them. The Irish Constitution and its accompanying case law are also complex. In the case of the Lisbon Treaty, voters can be reassured by the fact that politicians and civil servants have pored over every word to ensure that their interests were protected. In part, that is why the treaty is complex. Complexity is often essential to compromise, and compromise is what keeps us working together.

What if we say No? The Lisbon Treaty is the result of years of negotiation and very difficult compromise between 27 democratically elected governments representing almost 500 million people. The Irish people alone can block all of that. That is our right.

But just because we can do something, does not mean that we should.

If we block Lisbon, the other member states might look at other options to go forward on their own. Ireland's influence on what they then might do, as sovereign countries, would be reduced. I do not think that would be in Ireland's, or Europe's, best interest.

Alternatively, after years of trying, member states might simply give up on efforts to reform the treaties, reasoning that getting the reform ratified in all 26 states, and in a referendum in Ireland as well, would just be too difficult. That would freeze the EU in its present form. That would not really be in Ireland's interest either. As a small nation, we need any international organisation we are in to be capable of growth and change so that it can protect our interests in a world that is itself changing so rapidly.

For all these reasons, as an Irish citizen, I will be voting Yes. In doing so, I believe I will be helping renew and strengthen for the 21st century a structure of peace that has served us well in the 20th century.

John Bruton is ambassador of the EU to the United States. He was leader of Fine Gael from 1990 to 2001 and taoiseach from 1994 to 1997