An Intelligent Start to Nice

 

The Government has moved intelligently to address political concerns arising from the Treaty of Nice. Legislation published yesterday adds a new constitutional guarantee that Ireland could not join a common defence in the European Union without the approval of the people in a referendum.

A new Select Committee on European Affairs is to scrutinise EU legislation, promising more effective democratic accountability and will be in place before the second referendum on Nice is held in the autumn. The Government now hopes the debate can move on to discuss EU enlargement and maintaining Ireland's position in Europe.

Real progress has been made with these decisions. The two declarations on Ireland's military neutrality adopted at the European Council in Seville, which clarify the procedures to be followed for Irish involvement in EU military operations, are now to be supplemented by a constitutional entrenchment of the principle that a referendum would have to be held on any move to introduce a common defence.

This guarantee will help allay fears that Ireland could drift into a military alliance without a popular mandate. It should reduce the mistrust arising from Fianna Fáil's failure to hold a promised referendum on joining the Partnership for Peace. And yet it keeps open the Government's freedom to run a security and defence policy without being subject to the constant threats of constitutional challenge that would have arisen if military neutrality was to be written into the Constitution. Irish participation in operations conducted by the EU's Rapid Reaction Force remain subject to the "triple lock" of United Nations mandate, Government decision and Oireachtas approval.

Equally important is the move towards more effective political scrutiny of EU business. Most complaints about the democratic deficit in the EU concentrate on the secretive Council of Ministers and overlook the failure by national legislatures to make their own executives properly accountable on EU business. With the announcement that the new Select Committee on European Affairs is to begin its work next week and will have a legislative basis before the referendum is held, there is an opportunity for Ireland to adopt the best EU practice on parliamentary scrutiny. In the Convention on the Future of Europe and the subsequent treaty the question of democratic accountability is being addressed more comprehensively than ever before. It is essential that Ireland should participate fully and confidently in these negotiations, where the most important decisions will be made.

With these decisions behind it, the Government faces a gruelling campaign to convince voters that Ireland's vital interests are best preserved by ratifying the Nice Treaty. It needs to concentrate on getting that message across and demonstrate that it is prepared to listen and respond to counter-arguments rather than treating them dismissively. The Danish prime minister, Mr Anders Fogh Rasmussen's warning that a second No to Nice would be a "political disaster" for the EU, illustrates how serious are the issues at stake.