Lisbon Treaty's less publicised elements provide a compelling argument to vote Yes


TWO WEEKS ago in this column I explained the exceptionally democratic process by which the text of the Lisbon Treaty was prepared by the elected politicians of the EU states – opposition representatives as well as government ministers – and summarised the many useful reforms that this treaty proposes to effect.

With six days to go before we decide the fate of Lisbon, I now propose to return to some of the less publicised elements of the treaty.

First of all, does the treaty extend the competences of the European Union? Yes it does. It endows the union with several additional competences, principally in respect of global warming and energy policy, two issues that can clearly be best dealt with at a European rather than national level.

I have heard no opponent of the treaty objecting to these additions to the union’s competences.

Nor have I heard treaty critics welcoming – as I feel they should have done – its provisions explicitly specifying that the union can henceforth secure no new competence in any policy area unless its remit is extended there by a unanimous vote of all 27 member states.

Another particularly valuable Lisbon provision is that it will require the European Commission to send all new legislative proposals to national parliaments at least eight weeks before they are due to be discussed by the Council of Ministers. This will give states’ parliaments the first bite at each legislative cherry.

Henceforth they will have an opportunity to give to their own government an advance opinion on each legislative proposal, as well as an opportunity to send to Brussels in advance of the EU legislative process a view as to whether a proposal, by going beyond actions appropriate to the EU as distinct from national level, would breach the EU principles of subsidiarity or proportionality. Moreover, under this treaty national parliaments must also be sent the agendas and minutes of all council meetings.

In addition, and quite remarkably, if a proposal were to be made to drop any of the provisions for unanimity that remain in the treaty – some of which are very important to us – the treaty’s protocol on subsidiarity provides that either house of any national parliament will have the power to veto such a proposal! That offers a new and potentially powerful role to our Senate, as well as to the Dáil.

Next, where decisions of the council are taken by vote, a double majority is in future to be required not just (as treaty opponents have suggested), a majority backed by governments whose states have 65 per cent of the union’s population, but also the votes of a 55 per cent majority of states – a provision which gives a small country like Ireland an equal role with Germany. That’s a provision that the treaty’s opponents have dishonestly tried to hide from the electorate.

In parallel with an extension of the European Parliament’s veto right to almost every aspect of European decision making, this combination of proposals in relation to national parliaments marks a major advance in the democratisation of the EU.

As to neutrality, it is sometimes forgotten that Ireland is one of six neutral EU states. And none of the other five neutrals seem to share any of the hang-ups about neutrality that have been displayed by our professional neutralists during every one of our seven EU referendums. But now for the first time, Irish neutrality is specifically recognised by the EU through a reference, in the third of our guarantees, to EU respect for “Ireland’s tradition of military neutrality”.

With the guarantees in place that were secured by our Government’s negotiation with our EU partners, and with our right to have an Irish member in every future commission, the only issues that seem to have made any impact with the public in this referendum have been the minimum wage and workers’ rights.

The minimum wage issue is, of course, palpable nonsense, for the EU has no role whatever with regard to pay, which of its very nature can only be a national state issue.

That poster was simply a deliberately dishonest and cruel frightener, designed to worry those least able to cope with the intricacies of the EU. Joe Higgins seemed to be making a certain amount of hay with his workers’ rights issue until he was faced with a question as to what the treaty actually says on this subject.

Then he had to accept that, contrary to the impression his audience had been receiving, the treaty as such says nothing on the subject – for the obvious reason that this issue is of course covered by the Charter of Fundamental Rights, which is to be adopted in conjunction with the treaty.

Articles 27 to 32 of this charter includes provisions in respect of workers’ rights, provisions of which the European Court of Justice will henceforth have to take into account. These articles, thus introduced into EU law for the first time, include rights of collective action to defend workers’ interests, including strike action.

Instead of welcoming this positive new provision, Joe Higgins wants us to vote against the entire treaty, which would cancel this new protection for workers – just because he would like the charter wording to be different. Talk about cutting off your nose to spite your face!

A protocol to the treaty also makes it explicitly clear that the EU cannot interfere with the right of governments to provide public services.

This referendum has been much better fought by Yes campaigners than the last one, with huge participation by a very wide range of civil society.

This time, people have not been prepared to leave the matter to politicians who, it must be said, however, have also played a much more active role on this occasion, despite their huge economic and financial distractions.

I am particularly pleased that through their own organisation, Generation Yes, young people in different parts of the country have now become actively engaged with the issues involved in the campaign.

The change in public mood among the young has been palpable. Last Tuesday a debate organised by the TCD Politics Society was followed by a student vote favouring the Lisbon Treaty by over 10 to one – a huge change in youth sentiment since the first Lisbon referendum 18 months ago.

I hope and believe that where the young are now offering a lead, the rest of the electorate will follow on Friday next.