Vote No and we will become pariahs of EU

Sat, May 24, 2008, 01:00

We should not reject a treaty that protects every one of our vital national interests, GARRET FITZGERALD.

THE LISBON Treaty bears many marks of Irish negotiating skills. We were successful in protecting every vital Irish interest. Despite attempts by treaty opponents to mislead the electorate, the fact is that our right to remain outside any European defence arrangement and to decide for ourselves Irish participation in EU peacekeeping activities has once again been guaranteed. Our veto on harmonisation of direct taxation, including corporate taxation, remains entrenched.

In every instance the opponents of the treaty have been shown to be wrong.

Our negotiators have also achieved the acceptance by all our partners of a number of positive provisions. These include ensuring absolute equality between large and small states in participation in the European Commission as well as, for the first time, a commitment to the EU tackling climate change.

Having secured the vetoes required by our national interest, we are happy to see the disappearance of a number of vetoes on other issues that could be used to block desirable changes. (The French held back our economic growth until the 1990s by vetoing the completion of the single market after 1965.)

It is also worth saying that, during the 2002/2003 convention to prepare the treaty draft, which included representatives of parties from 27 states, Proinsias De Rossa played a major role in strengthening proposed social provisions in the treaty.

If we were to reject a treaty in whose preparation we played such a leading part, we would overnight move from being seen as one of the most respected EU states - and consequently the beneficiary of huge goodwill - to becoming a European pariah.

For instance, in the forthcoming Common Agricultural Policy review, I wouldn't bet on our farmers getting much sympathy.

In all the other 26 member states, parties have been involved in preparing the treaty document. It is not difficult to grasp the reaction of all of these politicians and civil servants if we vote No - perversely and frivolously, as they would see it, in the light of all we achieved in that negotiation.

If one tries to make this point to opponents of the treaty - as I have been doing on the streets and elsewhere - their response is twofold. First of all, they express total ignorance of, and lack of interest in, this European structure, and of the huge benefits we have gained from the goodwill of our partners. Forget all that, they say, we should simply indulge our own prejudices and hang-ups, and damn the consequences.

Secondly, they sometimes add that if the treaty is rejected we should simply go back and renegotiate. But how? Even if anyone in Europe were willing to indulge us, there is simply nothing left for us to negotiate, because the objections raised by treaty opponents - whether they be on defence, taxation, the trade negotiation veto or abortion - have already been fully covered.

How have we come to a situation in which there is a possibility of our electorate voting to wreck the entire European reform project?

First of all, the principal Government party, distracted perhaps by internal problems, failed to prepare the way for this campaign. In this column on January 5th, I urged that, before the campaign proper began, the Government should pre-empt treaty opponents' argument about EU "militarisation" of Ireland by publicising our military and civilian peacekeeping efforts, including those that, even before our engagement in Chad, were carried out by the Defence Forces and the Garda Síochána under EU auspices in places like Bosnia, Indonesia, Darfur and the Palestinian territories.

Nothing was done about this, and until this month treaty opponents were given free rein to spread their mendacious propaganda about EU militarisation of Ireland - as well as about taxation, abortion, workers' rights, and so on. By the time the Government belatedly stirred itself two weeks ago, a substantial proportion of the electorate had been persuaded to accept, and had largely internalised, many of the spurious claims by treaty opponents.

From personal experience of six European referendum campaigns over 35 years, I know how difficult it has always been to get ministers to campaign effectively on EU issues. For whatever reason, there has always been hesitancy at that level about taking on the propaganda of those who have opposed every EU treaty with arguments based on skilful misreading of treaty texts.

That propaganda can be answered effectively only by people who have made themselves equally well versed in the terms of the treaty under debate. It has been deeply disturbing this week to hear it commonly reported that one senior Minister failed to hold his own in radio discussion with a prominent English Eurosceptic, and that another twice appeared unaware that the larger countries had lost their second commissioner under the terms of a previous treaty.

These events have not given the impression of a Government dedicated to ensuring the success of the Lisbon Treaty. That needs to change during the remaining 18 days of this campaign.