by Frank Schnittger
Thu Jun 25th, 2009 at 01:03:17 PM EST
EU participation an ongoing evolution - Letters, Opinion - Independent.ie
Thursday June 25 2009
About the only remaining argument against the Lisbon Treaty the 'No' campaigners have left is that they dislike being asked to vote on the same treaty twice.
But we have also voted in referendums on proportional representation, divorce and the Nice Treaty twice, and voted no less than four times in abortion-related referendums.
In fact, we seem to be making a habit of revisiting the same issues to be sure, to be sure.
Politics is an ongoing process of change, not a once off, once and for all exercise. So the 'No' campaigners had better get used to it.
Many of them have campaigned against every European treaty referendum since our accession into the EU in 1973. They have become creatures of habit and will no doubt oppose the next treaty (likely to be the accession of Croatia) as well.
We cannot have too much democracy, consultation and participation in the ongoing evolution of the European Union.
Let us rejoice that we have the opportunity to vote when so many have not, both inside and outside the European Union. But let us also not be afraid to change our minds and amend the Constitution if circumstances warrant it, as we have done on no fewer than 23 occasions before.
Our Constitution is a living document, and is the better for those amendments.
Of course there are many valid arguments against the Lisbon Treaty. Many would say it doesn't go far enough in reforming the EU and preparing it for an expanding membership. But the NO campaigns in Ireland (for they have little in common with each other) have been more or less boxed into a corner by the Government and EU Council systematically addressing many of the arguments they made the last time around.
As An Taoiseach, Brian Cowen wrote in yesterday's Irish Times:
Why we must deliver a resounding Yes to Lisbon - The Irish Times - Wed, Jun 24, 2009
Our EU partners have addressed our concerns and we must reassert our solidarity with them
AT THE European Council in Brussels last week, the EU member states agreed to give Ireland legally binding guarantees in response to the concerns of the Irish people in relation to the Lisbon Treaty.
Going to Brussels, I had two clear aims. Firstly, I wanted clear legal guarantees on the issues of tax, neutrality and our constitutional protections on the right to life, education and the family. Secondly, I wanted an explicit commitment that these legal guarantees would, at a future point, be given full treaty status, by way of a future protocol.
Both of these aims have been met in full. I am confident that we now have a solid basis to return to the Irish people and to ask them again for their approval for Ireland to ratify the Lisbon Treaty.
I do not underestimate the scale of the challenge. I understand that, for many, absorbing a complex legal document is difficult, and I accept that we must do better this time around in explaining it in clear terms. I recognise, too, that from time to time people can find certain aspects of EU policies and regulations frustrating. Above all, I know that the forces that have always opposed our membership of the European Union since 1973 will once again seek to confuse and mislead the electorate.
Already they are trying to dismiss the significance of last week's achievements. Their accusations that the outcome of the summit was a pre-cooked charade are wrong and highly insulting to our EU partners.
Many member states struggled with Irish reluctance to sign up to what they see as a necessary updating of the union's rulebook. Some were alarmed at being asked to agree guarantees on issues not even mentioned in the Lisbon Treaty. Others, perfectly legitimately, did not wish to reopen their own democratic ratification processes.
Despite these misgivings, our EU partners listened carefully to us, and to our proposals about how our concerns might be addressed. Now they have responded substantively to those concerns, with legal guarantees which ensure that:
- Ireland retains control over our own tax rates;
- Ireland's traditional policy of military neutrality will not be affected by the Lisbon Treaty; and
- The treaty will not affect the protections in the Irish Constitution on the right to life, education and the family.
They have also reaffirmed the importance of workers' rights and public services where, far from being a negative force, the EU has brought about many positive changes over the years. Interestingly, when the No side quote last year's research showing that workers' rights was a big concern for the public, they omit the fact that many people cited progress in this area, including commitments in the Charter on Fundamental Rights, as a major reason why they voted Yes to Lisbon.
Last week's agreement is not the action of a union that cares little for the interests of the citizens of its member states. Rather, it demonstrates the capacity of the union and its member states to work, patiently and constructively, towards consensus and solutions to problems. And above all it represents a very positive response from our partners and a significant achievement for Ireland.
Focusing on last week's outcome risks losing sight of a major element of the overall response to Irish concerns: agreement last December to return to one commissioner per member state if the Lisbon Treaty enters force.
The fact that retaining a commissioner was considered important by so many Irish people reveals, I believe, an underlying appetite for connection with, and influence in, the affairs of the European Union.
None of this will, of course, prevent the No campaigns from introducing new arguments against the Lisbon Treaty. But so far most of their bile has been directed at the alleged arrogance of the Government and the EU Elite for not taking the Irish No last time around for a final answer. Hence my LTE above - to highlight the fact that Referendums in Ireland are often not the final answer on anything.
My letter also seeks to highlight a second point - that the popular engagement encouraged by repeated referenda on the same or similar topics is an important part of popular democracy and government legitimacy in Ireland - something which has so far prevented an economic catastrophe turning into a political catastrophe - with riots in the street, racial pogroms (such as the one directed against Romanians in Belfast recently), and government repression the likely outcomes.
So rather than seeing the requirement for repeated Irish referenda on EU issues as a problem, we should see it as a positive way of encouraging wider education, participation and engagement. Of course a similar process in other Member States (e.g. the UK, France, the Netherlands) might lead to a more negative outcome) and we then have the much more difficult scenario of one member state having a veto on the development of the Union as a whole.
Perhaps the next EU Treaty should address this thorny issue full on and provide for a scenario whereby all future EU Treaties will have to be approved by popular referendums throughout the EU, but that a 60% majority of all voters and at least a 50% majority in 75% of all member states will be sufficient to secure the ratification of a Treaty. That way greater popular participation and engagement is secured without (say) Malta having a veto on what 90% of the population of the EU as a whole actually need and want.
What is clear is that the current system of ratifying new EU Treaties is all but broken. Popular engagement is declining, and the EU has been all but paralysed in recent years. It is this meta problem which needs to be addressed if the EU is to regain the ability to respond dynamically to the challenges in the world ahead.
No doubt such a change (the 60/75% rule) would be resisted tooth and nail by nationalists, eurosceptics, and those who want to destroy the European project because it will diffuse power much more generally throughout the Union, and increase its legitimacy by encouraging wider popular engagement. But who can doubt that the global challenges of war, climate change, financial regulation and corporate governance to not need a more concerted and dynamic European response?
The EU either needs to improve its popular legitimacy, or it will die. And it doesn't have a lot of time left to make the choice.