Way clear for new referendum

 

TAOISEACH BRIAN Cowen had a good EU summit in Brussels over the last two days. He secured guarantees that most of the clarifications sought by the Government on how the Lisbon Treaty applies to Ireland will have strong legal effect. This was a risky strategy because other governments might not have agreed, leaving him vulnerable in the second referendum on the treaty to be held in early October. But it was worth the effort, since the ground is now cleared for him to lead the vigorous campaign required with confidence that many of the fears and doubts about its contents can be allayed.

The summit conclusions spell out that other EU member states do not need to ratify the treaty again on foot of the guarantees given to Ireland. That assurance was especially important for British prime minister Gordon Brown, facing a Conservative opposition hostile to the treaty. The conclusions say explicitly that these are legally binding decisions which clarify but do not change the treaty text. This further confirms that the ratifications already made by other member states stand. The one substantive change since last year’s referendum, that each member state will retain a European commissioner, will be made on foot of a political not a textual decision – but only if the treaty is ratified here and elsewhere.

The most important outcome of the Brussels summit is that the guarantees sought by Ireland on taxation, security and defence and the right to life, family and education will be appended to the next accession treaty as protocols, giving them the strength of primary European law. Even if there was a concerted political effort to break them in future it would be legally more difficult to do so without Ireland’s consent. Despite their reiteration of what the treaty does or does not contain (and notwithstanding the apt description of the guarantees in this newspaper today as Lisbon for slow learners), these are important assurances in the context of the widespread ignorance about the treaty’s actual contents revealed by research into last year’s campaign.

The other issues dealt with by this summit reinforce the case for Ireland being at the centre of the EU’s affairs by ratifying the treaty in October. Banking regulation is most effectively enforced at European level in a globalised world. Climate change can no longer be handled just by individual nation states when the EU adds so much value in world negotiations. The co- ordination of foreign policy on Iran, Burma or the Middle East will be improved if and when new procedures contained in the treaty are implemented. And a new European Commission will be able to act with greater authority with the treaty’s provisions in place.

Despite the many political changes since the last referendum, including the definite shift in public opinion in its favour, its ratification cannot be taken for granted. A strong campaign based on civil society as well as political parties is needed to pass it, backed by determined efforts to inform voters on its real contents and a fair media debate concentrating on different points of view rather than distorted facts.