What the Lisbon Treaty will do


IT IS likely that when many voters turn out for the referendum on October 2nd the detailed specifics of the Lisbon Treaty may not be weighing most heavily on their minds. It was ever so.

It is the nature of the referendum process for good or ill. Some will cast their votes because they believe we should be more or less involved in the EU, some over specific policies of the Union and others because, in these difficult times, we would founder if cast adrift. Some because the EU has done us proud in the past. Some simply on the basis that they trust the supporters of one side more. Yet others, one fears, because they feel the Government deserves to be punished.

However, for those who want to take seriously their civic responsibility to answer the question asked and not any other, there is a good argument to be made for the treaty in its own right.

In the history of European treaties Lisbon ranks lowly in terms of its impact on the shape of the EU and its politics. No great projects here, no single currency, no single market, it is mainly a series of incremental changes to institutional and decision-making structures, a few new jobs, a reaffirmation of core values and the setting out of some new political priorities, most notably relating to climate change. It is a modest project defined in the preamble as an attempt to enhance efficiency and democratic legitimacy and to improve the coherence of the actions of a union of 27 states and 500 million people and which heads of state promise will be the last institutional treaty for at least a generation.

But the treaty is no less necessary. Decision-making gridlock is a real danger when so many areas of policy remain subject to unanimity. Lisbon creates new competences for the EU in only five relatively modest areas: public health, energy security, dealing with natural or man-made disasters, sport and space policy. But it transfers existing competences in some 35 areas to a system of majority voting which balances the rights of individual states with relative population sizes.

But while the role of unanimity voting is reduced, in every case a reduction is matched by a corresponding increase in the rights of the European Parliament where MEPs see a radical extension of their “co-decision” powers – one form of democratic accountability is replaced with another. The treaty also enhances accountability and transparency by giving national parliaments new powers over legislation, opening to the public ministers’ meetings when they are legislating, and creating a new citizens’ initiative system.

In as much as it was possible to ascertain the concerns of Irish voters last year, the Government has secured clear and binding assurances from fellow member states that the union does not intend, and is not permitted, to encroach on areas of sovereignty that were of particular concern such as abortion, corporate taxation and military neutrality. The Irish commissioner has been safeguarded. Now Ireland should reconsider its position on a modest, democratising treaty that will help the EU face into the challenges of a difficult era.