DEBATE ON THE NICE TREATY
JOHN BRUTON TD,
Sir, - Vincent Browne's critique of the European Union is well made (Opinion, June 26th), but his conclusion that one should vote No to Nice does not follow from it.
He is right when he says we need not have a trade-off between enlargement of the European Union and democracy. We can have both. If Irish people vote Yes to Nice, and if the Convention on the Future of Europe is allowed to continue its work uninterrupted by a crisis generated by a second No vote here, we will have both.
He is right that the Council of Ministers is democratically unaccountable because it meets in secret.
But the remedy is not to vote No to Nice. It is to change how the Council of Ministers works. In the Convention on the Future of Europe, there is now almost universal agreement that the Council of Ministers should meet in public in future when it is passing legislation.
It is also likely that provision will be made in the next treaty that representatives of national parliaments, including in some cases members of the Opposition, be present at legislative sessions of the Council of Ministers.
The European Union did not, as he says, refuse to accept the outcome of Ireland's first referendum on Nice. It was Irish politicians, here in Ireland, who decided to ask the Irish people to vote again. The Taoiseach announced before the general election that he would do so, and he was re-elected with that mandate.
Vincent Browne says he wants a No vote because the founding texts of the European Union are "impenetrable", "written for the European élite", and "indecipherable, except for those with the patience and expertise to analyse a complex legal treaty". He should not apply double standards. The case law interpreting the Irish Constitution is just as "impenetrable", "indecipherable" and "accessible only to an élite" as any European Union text.
European law is actually more accessible to non-lawyers than our own common law system, because it is based on legal texts which can be read in full, whereas Irish law is based on a combination of legal texts and decided cases, and the reports of those decided cases are almost entirely inaccessible to lay people.
In any event, the Convention on the Future of Europe aims to produce a much simplified EU constitutional text. A No vote to Nice would, if anything, slow down rather than accelerate that. - Yours, etc.,
Member of the Praesidium of the Convention on the Future of Europe, JOHN BRUTON TD, Dáil Éireann, Dublin 2.
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Sir, - The Minister for Foreign Affairs, Mr Brian Cowen TD, has asked me to respond to some of the points made by Vincent Browne in his column of June 26th. Some of the points Mr Browne makes are groundless, some have already been addressed, and others are being looked at with a view to finding a better way of doing things in the future.
First, the decision-making process is not unaccountable. As Vincent Browne rightly observes, the individual Ministers who make up the Council of Ministers are accountable to the parliaments they serve. It is for each country to organise this in line with its own practices and requirements.
Many of our partners already have elaborate systems in place. In our case, arrangements for enhanced Oireachtas scrutiny of EU business will be in place from Monday next, July 1st, and will become fully operational once the new Oireachtas Committees are established. Furthermore, within the European Convention, there is a growing view, which the Irish Government representative, Ray MacSharry, has strongly articulated, that ways need to be found to give national parliaments collectively a greater role.
Vincent Browne argues that at Seville last weekend the European Council could have decided to open Council meetings to the public. He should be pleased, therefore, that it actually did decide to. In future, when the Council considers legislative proposals (where co-decision applies) the meetings at which it initially debates the proposal and at which final votes are taken and explained will be open to the public. This is something for which Ireland has argued and which we very much welcome.
Furthermore, in enacting legislation, the Council mostly acts on the basis of co-decision with the European Parliament - an open, elected and accountable institution, and one moreover before which the Council Presidency regularly appears.
Qualified majority voting, which Vincent Browne dislikes, has always been a feature of EU decision-making, and was an important part of the Union we joined 30 years ago. It has been extended by successive treaties to a point where it applies in the case of most decisions taken in the Council. The Treaty of Nice extends its use to some 30 new areas, which do not include areas where Ireland or others preferred to see unanimity retained, such as taxation.
QMV aids smoother decision-making. It has been vital in the creation of the single market, which is so important to our economy. In most areas, including agriculture, we have found it to our advantage not to be blocked by the potential vetoes of others.
Vincent Browne argues that the treaties of the EU are impenetrable. Unfortunately, that is too often the case with formal legal texts. However, the question of whether the treaties could be rendered in plainer and simpler language is being considered actively in the European Convention. That it is not easily read, is no reason to reject a proposal.
Throughout the campaign ahead, the Government will be making every effort, both through the early establishment of the Referendum Commission and on its own account, to ensure that the people of Ireland are fully informed, and have a firm grasp of the issues involved, before they take this important decision.
He raises the Government's entitlement to hold a second referendum on Nice.Far from ignoring the wishes of the people, the Government has been listening very carefully indeed. It has moved to address many of the concerns that were raised in last year's campaign. It has established the National Forum on Europe, where a very lively and active debate continues. As I said earlier, it has put in place measures to improve the way in which EU business is handled by the Oireachtas.
At the weekend, the declarations made at Seville by Ireland and by the European Council made clear that Nice, and previous treaties, pose no threat to our traditional policy of military neutrality. In taking these important steps, the Government has created a significantly different context in which the people can decide.
Ultimately, the people have a sovereign right to decide what to do. But the Minister believes that, on a matter of such importance to Ireland and to Europe, the Government would be failing in its duty were it not to ask them to reflect again.
That the European Union is not perfect should not prevent the people of Ireland from recognising it as a crucial framework for our influence and prospects, now and in the future, and from understanding what the Treaty of Nice is: a device to pave the way for the countries of central and eastern Europe, and Malta and Cyprus, to join the EU.
There is no doubt that a second No vote would represent a serious setback to the hopes and aspirations of the people waiting to join, and to our own interest in good relations with them and with our partners. - Yours, etc.,
DERMOT BRANGAN, Press Counsellor, Department of Foreign Affairs, St Stephen's Green, Dublin 2.
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A chara, - Vincent Browne is right. There are many reasons for the electorate to reject the Treaty of Nice again. The most compelling is perhaps the fact that we have already voted No to the Treaty. That this decision has not been respected is a shameful indictment on what passes for European democracy.
Again we have Bertie Ahern and others telling us that if we refuse to be forced into accepting the Nice Treaty we will be isolated by the rest of Europe. What kind of argument is that? What message will that send out in the future?
This suggests that at any stage in the future the élite of the EU can force Ireland, or any other small nation, to accept treaties that are not in their interest by the use of bully tactics.This was the attitude that ensured Nice was defeated on its first outing. Let's hope the same happens again. - Is mise,
Cllr MATT CARTHY, (Sinn Féin), Carrickmacross Town Council, Co Monaghan.
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Sir, - It is obvious that at least one person has learned nothing from the last Nice referendum. - Yours, etc.,
DESMOND L. O'NEILL, Derrypatrick, Drumree, Co Meath.
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Sir, - It is perhaps not surprising that the leader of the "slightly constitutional" party proposes that Ireland adopt a "slightly neutral" foreign policy.
I hope this abasing hypocrisy receives the slight it deserves from the electorate. - Yours, etc.,
KARL DOHERTY, Lodge Manor, Coleraine, Co Derry.