Last year's No to Lisbon was right - until now

Thu, Jul 23, 2009, 01:00

OPINION:I CAMPAIGNED for a No vote in the referendum on the Lisbon Treaty in June last year because I believed a better deal was possible for Ireland and for the European Union generally, writes NAOISE NUNN

I now intend to vote Yes in October’s referendum, not only because I believe that we have secured a better deal through our No vote, but also because the national and international context has since been transformed beyond all recognition.

Economist John Maynard Keynes, in response to criticism that he had changed his position on monetary policy during the Great Depression, said: “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?”

The Lisbon Treaty was to have reduced the number of members of the European Commission to two-thirds of the number of member states, leaving Ireland – and every other member state – without the opportunity to nominate a commissioner for five out of every 15 years. However, as a result of the Irish No vote, last month’s EU summit unanimously agreed that every member state will retain the right to nominate a commissioner.

While it is true that commissioners do not represent the member states which nominate them, this is an extremely significant breakthrough because it provides a powerful direct connection between the citizens of member states and the body which initiates all EU legislation. Indeed, it is a provision which many other member states argued strongly in favour of retaining, so it can be argued that the Irish people, by voting No, did them a favour too.

I am also persuaded that the guarantees secured from our European partners on the other issues of concern to Irish No voters will ensure that the Lisbon Treaty cannot be used by the EU in general – and the European Court of Justice in particular – as the thin end of a wedge to force Ireland into anything which is contrary to the will of its people.

Not alone is there is no precedent for this, but it would be completely against the individual and collective interests of the EU’s member states to force unwanted change on a fellow member state, since any one of them could be next in the firing line on a sensitive issue. The EU, or “Brussels”, is after all largely run on the principle of consensus agreement by member states on matters for which it benefits members to take collective rather than individual action.

Although I have difficulties with the democratic gaps in the functioning of the EU, there is no way the Lisbon Treaty can be described as undemocratic or even anti-democratic. The process through which the treaty evolved involved consultation with the democratically elected members of the parliaments of every EU member state, including opposition parties; the final, unanimous agreement of the democratically elected governments of every member state, and a massive majority in the directly elected European Parliament.

Of course it would have been preferable if all EU citizens had a direct say on the Lisbon Treaty, which would have lent it much greater popular acceptance, but that is simply not constitutionally possible in all member states and, for reasons that have little or nothing to do with the EU, it would not have been politically possible either.

We need better mechanisms to address the problems in how the EU is run and the increasing gap between the bureaucracy and the citizens it is supposed to serve, but this is not a good enough reason to reject the Lisbon Treaty.

Instead, we must demand that the Irish Government immediately implements measures to ensure much more effective and transparent scrutiny of EU legislation, and communicates this to the Irish people in a manner that gives us confidence that our interests are being protected and served in the implementation of European directives and regulations. The reinstatement of the Forum on Europe or a similar body would also serve a valuable role as a sounding board for the hopes and fears of Irish citizens, and provide a link between them and the EU institutions.

The media too can play a more proactive role in establishing the relevance of what happens in Brussels to people’s everyday lives on an ongoing basis, and in reporting on the more engaging human stories that take place within the commission, parliament and council.

Given the fundamental interconnectedness and interdependence of the modern world in everything from the internet and telecommunications to international trade and energy security, it is self-evident that in order to best pursue the interests of its members on the global stage, the EU needs to enhance its scope for collective decision-making and action, and to revise the current rules to take account of its present 27 members. To continue without the reforms of the Lisbon Treaty would be like trying to download a 2 gigabyte file by plugging one’s computer into a bakelite rotary telephone.

By voting Yes to Lisbon, Ireland has much to gain from facilitating the upgrading of the EU’s operating system. We will not solve any of the EU’s acknowledged shortcomings by rejecting the treaty, but rather damage our international reputation as a forward-looking modern nation and force the EU – including Ireland – to continue to struggle with an obsolete system.

We should vote Yes, not because of fear or because we are told to by an unpopular Government making unpopular decisions, but because we confidently accept for ourselves the fundamental common sense of helping to update the rules of a club that offers us shelter from the economic storm and amplifies our voice on the international stage.

In fact, we should vote Yes in order to capitalise on, rather than squander, the position we gained from the No vote last year.


Naoise Nunn is an independent political consultant and founder of the Leviathan political cabaret series. He was executive director of Libertas until his resignation in September 2008