It makes sense to draw closer to EU now


OPINION:This is not a time for uncertainty and negativity. It is a time for all of us to look to the national interest

The Lisbon Treaty referendum in October is a defining moment for Ireland equivalent to the referendum in 1972 which marked our entry into the European Community.

Once more we are at a crossroads. We can decide to move forward with our 26 partners (then it was only six) in the EU or we can decide to say No, stand back and see what happens. This is not a time for uncertainty and negativity. It is a time for decision-making, strong resolve and strong leadership.

The substance of the treaty remains the same but the proposition before the electorate on October 2nd is substantially different from what the electorate voted on in June 2008.

Legally-binding guarantees on taxation, military neutrality, the right to life, the family and education and a solemn declaration on workers’ rights, social policy and public services, together with the agreement that each member state will have a commissioner for the future, constitute vital new matter, additional to what was on offer to the electorate in June last year.

It is not unreasonable that the electorate should have the opportunity to study, digest and vote on the combined set of proposals, some old, some new.

Secondly, the world, and Ireland in particular, has changed utterly since the previous referendum.

In the 12 months from June 2008 to June 2009 our unemployment has increased by almost 200,000. This is a shocking figure and represents a doubling of the number of people out of work in a year. We have to go right back to the Famine in 1847 to experience a more dramatic and drastic change of fortune for the Irish people in the space of a single year. In such dire economic circumstances closer engagement with our supportive and friendly neighbours in the EU seems eminently logical. All of them, big and small, have agreed to ratify the treaty and are waiting anxiously in the hope that Ireland will vote Yes. The EU is the single biggest market for our produce: it contributes a significant portion of our foreign direct investment; and the European Central Bank and European Investment Bank are making virtually unlimited quantities of cheap loans available to our hard-pressed financial institutions.

Moreover, the EU is overseeing a four year plan for Ireland to plot a course back to the Growth and Stability Pact requirement of 3 per cent debt ratio. It is little wonder that Iceland, overwhelmed by the financial storm, has decided to abandon its splendid isolation and seek shelter with the same friendly neighbours. It applied last week for EU membership. It is not true as opponents state that a rejection of the treaty merely confirms the status quo. That is too simplistic by far.

A second rejection of an EU treaty supported by all the other 26 members and which is intended to make more democratic, to make more transparent and to make more effective the operation of the EU, can only have negative consequences for our relationship with those same neighbours.

For the Labour Party the provisions of the Charter of Fundamental Rights, which is part of the treaty, will be a key selling point. The charter provides for the further integration of the economic and social aspects of EU membership so that they can complement each other more effectively and ensure that a better balance is struck between the demands of the market and the needs of society.

We will be reminding Irish workers of the benefits of the charter which include:

The right of workers to information and consultation in their place of work.

The right to collective bargaining and action.

Protection against unfair dismissal.

The right to fair and just working conditions and a prohibition on the exploitation of younger workers.

The theme of our campaign for a Yes vote will be Work with Europe reflecting the positive partnership that Ireland has with Europe in the areas of job creation and economic and social progress.

Finally, the treaty contains a protocol on the role of national parliaments in the EU which would greatly enhance the participation of national parliaments in the formulation of EU law for the future if the treaty is passed.

Moreover, the involvement of national parliaments in the EU decision-making process at every level, as envisaged by the protocol, would add enormously to the democratisation of the EU institutions.

In recognition of these new parliamentary powers and in recognition of the complex partnership which is our relationship with the EU, I believe it is time we considered upgrading the junior position of Minister for European Affairs to a full Cabinet portfolio. The “Bord Snip” proposal to terminate the Department of Community Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs might just be the opportunity to do so.

Now is the time for all of us to look to the national interest and not be swayed by sectional interests or the temptation to give an unpopular Government a bloody nose.

Joe Costello is Labour Party spokesman on Europe

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