Lisbon Treaty bears stamp of Irish negotiators and serves our interests


Ireland has played a unique part in the process leading to the current treaty, writes  GARRET FITZGERALD.

IRELAND HAS been by far the greatest beneficiary of EU membership. First of all it rescued us from our 130-year-old total dependence on a British food market which, since 1846, had pursued a "cheap food" policy at the expense of Ireland's small farms.

Second, our EU partners have provided Ireland with tens of billions of euro to enable us to expand hugely our education and training systems and to start the process of building the kind of road and rail system that is needed to cope with the much-increased prosperity that the union has brought us.

Third - and most important of all - by opening up for the first time the huge European market that had previously effectively been closed to Irish producers of goods and services, EU membership has enabled us to become a major producer and exporter of high-tech goods and latterly also of high-value services. As a consequence, in the 35 years since we joined the EU, we alone in Europe have secured a doubling of our workforce and a virtual trebling of our living standards.

Our success in attracting massive economic activity to Ireland owes much to the fact we are seen to have been a consistently positive member of the union. It would clearly be a major blow to our standing in the world if we were now to put this remarkable record in doubt by wrecking the reform of the union upon which our former taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, several years ago secured the unanimous agreement of all the other 26 member states.

The European Union, designed over 50 years to meet the needs of six countries, three large and three small, cannot without some retuning adequately provide for the more complex needs of today's 27 member states - six of them large and 21 small. That is what the Lisbon Treaty sets out to do.

Let me give two examples of problems that the Lisbon Treaty is designed to tackle.

First of all, the key to the success of the EU has been the role of the European Commission - a body whose members, although appointed by the governments of member states, have the job of acting independently in the interest of Europe as a whole.

When the union was established in the mid-1950s, initially as the "European Community", in order to protect themselves from any risk of big country domination, the three smaller participating member states, the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg, insisted that the sole power to initiate new community laws should lie with an independent European Commission.

Only when laws are thus proposed by the commission can the Council of Ministers and the democratically elected European Parliament jointly enact them - amending the commission proposals only with its agreement, unless there is unanimity about an amendment. This key role of the commission explains why the EU has worked well - because it has ensured fair treatment of all member states, small as well as large.

However, the enlargement of the union from the original member states to 27 - and eventually perhaps to about 35 - has made the working of the commission a lot more cumbersome, which is to our disadvantage, The larger states have helped to bring numbers down a little by agreeing to drop the second commissioner they were formerly entitled to, but this still leaves far too large a body for effective action.

Happily, the larger states have also proved willing not merely to drop their second commissioner but also to join with the smaller states in a new rotation system under which every state, large as well as small, will serve on the commission in only 10 years out of each 15-year period.

This enables us to secure our objective of a smaller, more effective body, while losing no ground to our larger partners.

Another danger arising from enlargement of the community has been that the unanimity provision that has hitherto existed in respect of very many decisions could make it difficult in future to decide anything. Because we in Ireland benefit more than most from union decisions, we have a particular interest in having this problem tackled - so long as vetoes are retained in respect of the key areas that concern us: taxation and defence. This is provided for in the Lisbon Treaty.

The preparation of this treaty is the outcome of many years of work - initially by 100 elected representatives of the peoples of Europe at a unique year-long European convention in Brussels, and subsequently by 27 democratic governments. I cannot think of any international accord in world history that has ever been prepared with such a meticulous commitment to ensuring that the vital interests of the peoples of every country involved would be adequately provided for and protected. As a result this document contains only what every one of the member states can accept.

We should recognise that Ireland has played a unique part in this process. During the Brussels convention our opposition parties as well as our government were deeply engaged in the debates, and it was the Irish minister for European affairs who took the initiative there to bring together each week the representatives of the governments of 16 smaller countries, so as to ensure that the larger states would not be allowed to dominate the discussions.

At meetings of the convention's presidium, organising its work, we were represented by former taoiseach John Bruton, who never hesitated to challenge strongly and often successfully convention president Giscard d'Estaing if he attempted to dominate the debates.

Moreover, the European Commission was represented at the convention by its Irish secretary-general, David O'Sullivan, (who, incidentally, has since been succeeded in this key post by another Irish person, Catherine Day). Finally, at this convention the European Parliament delegation was led by its Irish president, Pat Cox, and the social clauses of the treaty protecting workers' rights were greatly strengthened by the efforts of Proinsias de Rossa.

The resultant draft treaty was later further redrafted to deal with various national preoccupations. Then, following a notable failure by the Italian premier, Silvio Berlusconi, to resolve problems still outstanding, it was left to former taoiseach Bertie Ahern to negotiate successfully final changes to the text. He travelled twice to each of the other 26 capitals in order to secure unanimous agreement to the document now being put to the Irish people for ratification.

If ever there was an international treaty that bears the stamp of Irish negotiating skills, and is designed to serve Irish interests, this surely is that document.

We can, and should, take great pride in our major share in this achievement. And should now adopt it with enthusiasm.