Reading our Lisbon material will help voters

Thu, Jul 30, 2009, 01:00

OPINION:Telling voters that they cannot understand the treaty is condescending and wrong, writes FRANK CLARKE

BEFORE THE campaign even begins, let us reject the patronising talk that “ordinary people” could not possibly understand the Lisbon Treaty. Try reading the Finance Bill after the budget every year. It too is filled with sections and subsections, amendments and difficult language. None of us reads it, yet all of us know what it does. It increases or decreases our tax rates and it makes important changes to how the government raises money and spends it.

A will is a pretty dry document too. But if it is relevant to you, you will understand its impact very well indeed.

The Lisbon Treaty is similar in that it is not exactly a page-turner, but it contains provisions that are of relevance to Ireland and to all who live and vote here. We will vote on the treaty on October 2nd and we in the Referendum Commission are here to help you understand this treaty.

The various political parties and campaign interest groups will argue for a Yes or No vote. In contrast we are an independent body and are required by law to be factual and impartial.

The treaty itself is a complex document. Our material explaining it will not be. To have an adequate understanding of what they are voting on, voters do not need to become experts in the decision-making procedures of the EU. But they should take a little time to read about it and, if they do, I believe they will feel sufficiently informed to vote.

We believe that voters have undoubtedly gained a higher degree of understanding of the treaty over the past year. It has remained high on the agenda of the Irish electorate, the media and public representatives. Debate on the treaty continued over the past months during the European Parliament elections and the June European Council meeting. As a result people feel better informed. They are aware that the forthcoming decision is important and are interested in what this decision means for them from an individual, national and economic perspective.

Throughout August, the Referendum Commission will be working on producing material explaining the treaty. In about a month’s time every household in Ireland will receive a leaflet from the commission detailing the main provisions of the treaty and explaining some key issues. We will produce a longer handbook explaining the treaty in detail and this will be available in public offices, by post on request and on our soon-to- be-established website. We will have a dedicated telephone helpline to help you access the correct information and get answers to any questions you may have.

Since the referendum on the treaty in June of last year, the treaty itself has not changed. However, the European Council has made decisions giving assurances on certain issues that were of concern to Irish voters in last year’s campaign, and it has said it will include these statements as protocols to a future EU treaty, thus giving them the status of EU law.

These statements concern the retention of Ireland’s EU commissioner, control of Irish tax rates, Irish neutrality and ethical issues such as abortion and workers’ rights. These do not change the treaty, and their political significance or otherwise is ultimately for voters to decide.

It is possible to list in broad terms the main measures and changes the treaty would actually bring about were it to be ratified:

Some decisions which currently must be taken unanimously would be taken by a qualified majority vote. These areas include energy, asylum, immigration, judicial co-operation and sport.

Some decisions would continue to be taken unanimously, such as those in the areas of defence and taxation.

The European Parliament would be given more decision-making powers.

There would be a new post, that of president of the European Council.

The European Council would in future be able to propose changes to the EU treaties which would then have to be approved by member states.

The Charter of Fundamental Rights would be given the same legal value as the main treaties.

The European Council has said that if the treaty is ratified, each member state will continue to nominate a member of the EU Commission.

There are other aspects of the treaty which people will see as being of significance, and details on these issues can be accessed through our website and our other publications. Throughout the campaign the website will be updated to reflect the queries we are receiving from the public through our phone line and via e-mail.

The decision-making processes of the European Union are not simple – indeed some people study them full-time! However, this is not necessary in order to decide how to vote on this treaty. Voters can take a view on what they perceive to be its broad impact and exercise their vote on that basis.

We want you to make an informed decision. We want you to feel that you understand the proposition in front of you and feel comfortable with your decision. So when the literature reaches you in late August and the first week of September, we ask that you read it, use our website, ask us any questions which you may have and, most importantly, use your vote and be heard on October 2nd.

Don’t let other people decide the outcome for you.


Frank Clarke, a judge of the High Court, is chairman of the Referendum Commission

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