What happens to our neutrality when the chips are down?


In the run up to Amsterdam a group of EU member states effectively proposed that the EU become a military alliance, but were predictably defeated. France and Germany, supported by Belgium, Spain, Luxembourg and Italy proposed a phased merger of the EU with the defence organisation, the Western European Union (WEU). There was never any chance this proposal would prevail. A decision would have to be unanimous, and with the UK, Ireland, Denmark, and Austria strongly opposed, the proposal died.

The Government was happy with the final text of the Amsterdam Treaty in the area of defence and security. The prospect that the Union would take on the characteristics of a military alliance receded. The Treaty does not propose the establishment of a common European defence policy, nor does it propose the merger of the EU with the WEU. But it was not the opposition of Ireland and non-aligned states that was seen as most crucial. Rather it was pro-NATO countries, particularly the UK, which opposed it as they do not want to see an alternative defence structure to NATO established in Europe.

The continuing opposition of these states will ensure that the WEU and EU will not merge in the foreseeable future, and that a common defence policy does not happen quickly. Nevertheless between now and May 22nd there will be fierce debate on what Amsterdam does and does not say about security, defence and Irish neutrality. The Irish debate centres not on whether neutrality is already compromised, but whether a future Government could abandon neutrality without holding another referendum.

Of course at the moment a government could do just that, if it got the support of the Dail. There is no constitutional protection of Irish neutrality (there is not even a definition of it) as things stand. After Amsterdam that will continue to be the case.

The sections in the Amsterdam Treaty concerning defence contain a number of changes from the text of the Maastricht Treaty of 1992. The Maastricht Treaty of 1992 already says the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP):

"shall include all questions related to the security of the Union, including the eventual framing of a common defence policy which might in time lead to a common defence". The Amsterdam text contains some alterations, saying the CFSP:

"shall include all questions related to the security of the Union, including the progressive framing of a common defence policy . . . which might lead to a common defence should the European Council so decide. It shall in that case recommend to the member states the adoption of such a decision in accordance with their respective constitutional requirements." Opponents of the Treaty argue that if we pass the Treaty, the text above gives the European Council (composed of EU heads of state and government) the right to frame a common defence without holding a further referendum in Ireland. Supporters, however, say that any common defence would emerge from an Inter-Governmental Council of the EU as an amendment to the EU Treaties, and that there is a constitutional requirement for this to be put to a referendum. They say that the Treaty therefore makes a common defence less rather than more likely.

There is also an acknowledgement elsewhere in the Treaty - as in the Maastricht text - that there are member states, including Ireland, with attitudes to security and defence that are not in accord with the European mainstream. In this regard the Treaty says: "The policy of the Union in accordance with this article shall not prejudice the specific character of the security and defence policy of certain member states".

Finally the Taoiseach and the Minister for Foreign Affairs have pledged that any future proposal to alter Ireland's policy of military neutrality would be put to a referendum. However opponents say this is merely a political commitment which could be reneged on by any future Government.

The tone of the Treaty text implies an ambition to move the EU and the WEU closer. As in the Maastricht Treaty, the WEU is described as "an integral part of the development of the Union". The Treaty refers to the "possibility" of the integration of the WEU into the EU and says the EU and WEU should agree "arrangements for enhanced co-operation" within a year of the Treaty's enforcement. And in a section which alarms the Treaty's opponents it talks of co-operation between members in the field of armaments, but only "as member states consider appropriate".

However each time the Treaty raises the prospect of the EU taking on a more military character, it then qualifies the suggestion and makes it aspirational rather than mandatory. The Treaty therefore puts forward the idea of the EU taking on a more military character, but does not implement this idea.

This convoluted language on defence arose from negotiations which saw the Franco-German proposal for a phased merger of the EU and the WEU that would ultimately turn the Union into a full military alliance watered down into its present vague wording.

An aspect of the treaty which suits Ireland very well is the inclusion of the so-called Petersberg Tasks of the WEU into the Union. These tasks include peacekeeping, humanitarian missions, peace making and certain crisis management combat tasks. Under the new treaty Ireland can now opt to become involved on a case by case basis in such missions if they are mandated by the UN.

The reality is that the EU's future security needs are likely to be met by these Petersberg Tasks rather than other military operations. The most likely internal threat to EU security will come from the potential for instability within and between some of the applicant members to the EU. The borders of many of the central and Eastern European states divide ethnic populations. The ability of the EU to organise its own peacekeeping and peace enforcing missions in these areas is regarded as an important part of its development, and something which Ireland supported.

Opponents of the Treaty worry about the definition of the Petersberg Tasks because it extends to "peace making" missions. What, they ask, are peace making missions? Is this not another word for war? Would the allies who fought the Gulf War not have described themselves as being involved in peace making?

Whatever they include, however, Ireland can opt in or out as it sees fit. If the Treaty is passed the Dail could vote to send Irish troops to participate in a Gulf War. But the Dail could do that today if it wanted to. Political reality, and not this Treaty, will determine whether that ever happens.

And the fact that Amsterdam happens to suit us quite well in the security and defence area seems to be taken as a cue to put away the neutrality issue until another distant day when we are confronted with the need to take a decision.