Sick of hearing half-truths in treaty debate

Sat, Sep 12, 2009, 01:00

Some Yes voters display bias against their rivals; some No voters employ contemptible tactics, writes BREDA O'BRIEN

I HONESTLY don’t know which way to vote on Lisbon II, and I am getting very, very frustrated with people on both sides of the argument.

Listening to many of the radio discussions is like hearing debates in parallel universes. People not only skip blithely past questions that they do not want to answer, but give answers that they must know are only half the truth.

On the Yes side, there is an intolerance of No voters that sometimes verges on contempt. Certainly, there are factions on the No side who are employing contemptible tactics, such as claiming that alcoholics and depressives will be in danger of being locked up if provisions in the Charter of Fundamental Rights are implemented. (A cynic suggested that given our national predilections, and our current mood, the non-incarcerated proportion of our population would be likely to be low indeed.)

But the Yes side is still failing to respect legitimate concerns. Failure to take objections seriously was a key reason why the treaty was not passed before.

Although I support the EU on many grounds, not least because of its commitment to addressing climate change, I still voted No the last time for a hodgepodge of reasons. Firstly, there is the infamous democratic deficit. It is wrong that the vast majority of Europeans have little or no opportunity to influence the direction that the EU takes.

It is an impoverished form of democracy that says it is not necessary to consult citizens on EU treaties, as democratically elected governments have a mandate to govern. Do our French or Austrian counterparts really have the future of the EU in mind when they vote? Just as in Ireland, they elect their governments primarily on regional and national concerns.

Secondly, the loss of a commissioner was catastrophic. In theory, commissioners are supposed to put aside national concerns when appointed, but that is about as plausible as the claim that TDs are primarily legislators on the national stage rather than representatives of their own local electorate. The Irish did their EU neighbours a favour here, because the right to retain a commissioner rapidly came back on the table.

I don’t like the trend towards increased militarisation, either. Even if Ireland’s neutrality is protected to some degree, do we want to be part of a common foreign policy with countries that are committed to “increasing their military capacity”, that is, increasing their support of a deeply immoral arms trade?

When a country such as France that had traditionally been very strong on workers’ rights rejected the original EU constitution on the grounds that it weakened labour rights, that also rang alarm bells.

Then there is the sense that the EU is tone-deaf when it comes to religion. For example, the latest EU equal treatment directive extends the principle of equal treatment regardless of race, age, disability, sexual orientation and religion or belief, not just to employment, but to the provision of goods and services.

Catholic bishops in England and Wales wanted to know what effect the directive would have, for example, in the real case of a parish priest who refused to rent the parish hall to a witches’ coven? Were the witches being discriminated against on the grounds of religious belief? If so, what happens to the parishioners’ right to practise their beliefs?

Such concerns are not on most europhiles’ radar, so these people are useless at reassuring those who worry about such things.

The Lisbon Treaty cannot be blamed for the equal treatment directive, which will stand regardless of outcome, but it does not exactly inspire confidence that an “ever-closer Union” will listen to concerns of believers when they clash with the new absolute moral value of equality.

John Bruton is one person who does understand the concern of religious adherents. In a recent article in the Irish Catholiche pointed out that the Lisbon Treaty contains the wording, “The Union respects and does not prejudice the status under national law of Churches and religious institutions”.

He suggests the protections given by the national law of some member states such as Germany, Austria and ourselves to religious management of schools are strengthened by such wordings. He also says if the treaty falls, it is very unlikely the guarantees given to the Irish Government on the right to life, the family and education will be offered again.

I think it is a fair point that the EU was prepared to humour us the first time we rejected the treaty, but that their patience will not extend far. Pragmatically, we cannot afford to incite any further EU displeasure, given that it is the European Central Bank which will underwrite a huge chunk of our slow recovery.

So should pragmatism, and settling for what we can get in the way of guarantees win the day? I still don’t know. There are very few advocates on either side helping me to decide.